Wednesday, October 8, 2008
I have spent much of the last two days helping a dairy farmer friend chop corn silage. Despite a cold spring, the corn turned out pretty well--forming a ten-foot-high wall in the picture above. This field is over half a mile long, so harvesting consists of the tractor chopping three rows of corn going east, then skipping over to another gap and chopping back west. Half an hour later, the tractor is back where it started and one acre of standing green corn has been turned into 20-25 tons of silage.
I was enlisted to help move all this tonnage. The farm truck above holds 6-7 tons of silage, so after about half a row was chopped I would back up next to the tractor, which would dump its wagon into the truck. Laboring in second gear, I then drove each load to the silage bunker at the farm a few hundred yards beyond the end of the field. Another truck, boasting two rear axles and substantially better loaded performance, alternated in the hauling.
So why the trucks? Well, harvest is that fascinating time where one gets a glimpse of the essence of farming. The window for chopping corn silage generally lasts less than a month; dairy farmers want the corn to have matured as much as possible but don't want it to get too dry. During this window, autumn weather starts to intrude on the harvest schedule, and then there is always the threat of the chopper breaking down. So the key is to have the tractor chopping as much as possible rather than hauling wagons of silage back and forth. Unlike most other occupations, poor timing doesn't simply mess with one's vacation schedule; in dairy farming, missing harvest time can have a substantial impact on the quality and quantity of feed available for the cows during the rest of the year.
All this work consumes quite a bit of diesel; the rule of thumb is one gallon per ton of silage, although we were working close enough to the farm that this field's consumption was lower than average. Fortunately, a ton of silage can provide half the diet of a hungry Holstein for an entire month; during that month, our silage-munching cow will produce up to 300 gallons of milk. Finally, the feed that isn't digested returns as manure to completely fertilize the field for next year!
Speaking of our favorite natural fertilizer, we were mentioned in the most recent print version of Manure Manager magazine--it was just a repeat of the Puget Sound Energy press release from this spring, but we are still happy to make it into ag-focused publications. Dairy farmers don't typically read green-future-envisioning magazines like World Changing, so we need to meet everyone where they're at.