Silo Filling

Labor intensive job of silo filling ensured plenty of ensilage

| September 2011

For some reason, silos weren’t popular in the part of western Pennsylvania where I grew up. Even though my uncle on the next farm milked 20 or so head of cattle, they never tasted ensilage and Dad’s chickens didn’t either. For that reason I never experienced the joys of silo filling, which was an event nearly as important on many dairy farms as threshing. 

Like threshing, silo filling took a large amount of labor during a short period of time, as well as many teams and wagons. In the time-honored practice called “neighboring,” farmers in a neighborhood would come together at one farm after the other to pool their labor and resources in order to get everyone’s silo filled. Threshing contractors often owned an ensilage cutter and, after threshing season wound down, they would use their steam engines to travel around and fill silos.

Setting the stage for fermentation

According to Hoard’s Dairyman, in order to make good silage, the corn should be cut when “just past the roasting ear stage,” and the stalks were still green and juicy. A 1922 Kansas State University circular recommended that “the proper time to cut corn for the silo is about a week or 10 days before it is ready to put up in the shock; the (kernels on the) ear should be well dented and the lower leaves on the stalk dry, but the stalk itself still full of sap.”

 The still partly green stalks, ears and all, were cut in the field and hauled to the silo, where they were fed into an ensilage cutter and blower powered by a belt from a tractor. This machine cut the crop into small pieces and blew the pieces up a pipe and into the top of the silo. One or two “fortunate” individuals inside the silo directed the movable pipe spout to distribute the crop and also made sure the silage was tramped down tightly around the outside edges.

In order to prevent the green crop from spoiling and encourage fermentation, thus making silage, air has to be excluded. This was usually done in an upright silo by merely wetting down the top layer with water. This causes a layer of rotten silage a few inches thick on the top, which effectively seals the silage beneath it. Some farmers used wet, chopped straw or hay for this purpose as well.

Turning lemons into lemonade

Probably the first reported use of a silo occurred on the Bavarian farm of Adolf Reihlen, who had lived in the U.S. while learning to grow maize (corn). In 1861, his corn suffered frost damage so he cut it and buried the stalks in trenches. When he dug it up later, the corn was preserved and his cows loved it.