Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"A Salute to the Silo"

I was sitting in church last Sunday and just happened to glance out the window (I need to do this occasionally to reestablish my ties with the outdoors) where the main thing on the horizon is cousin Dwayne's silo. In just a few seconds time I had a bunch of memories about my relationship with silos, some good and some not so good.

Now don't preach me a sermon about daydreaming during the preaching. How many of you are still remembering what the title was of the sermon you heard on Sunday? The title of ours was "Paul on the Way to Damascus, On the Way to Jerusalem, and on the Way to Rome". So there.

And as I said it just lasted for a few seconds. It's amazing how much you can think about in a few seconds. And then I've thought about a few more things since.

My earliest memories of silos were the 14'x40' Ribstone silos that my Uncle Bud and my Uncle Robert both had on their farms. The "silo unloader" was whichever of my cousins turn it was to throw down the silage. And then another cousin loaded the wheelbarrow and wheeled the silage into the cows. It was really aggravating if you were the one who was supposed to be doing the wheeling and your brother up the silo was poking along and wasn't throwing enough silage down to keep you busy. I remember once the cousin down below was getting madder and madder at the poky one up the silo that he finally headed up to straighten him out. Of course, then the one up the silo started throwing silage down furiously.

 There were five boys in Uncle Robert's family and four in Uncle Bud's, so there was no shortage in manpower for the feeding operation. My cousin Leon once stuck a pitchfork pretty much all the way through his foot and was up the silo yelling bloody murder 'till my dad crawled up, put his foot on top of Leon's and yanked the fork out.

Getting the silage up the silos during silo-filling time was interesting also. The bravest guy was the one who climbed the outside of the silo (no ladder or cage, just climbing on the silo hoops) and with a rope pulled up the filler pipe. That was hooked to the blower which had a fold down table that was a wide as the back of a truck.

The trucks had what was called a "false end gate" that you slid to the front when the truck was empty. Then there were cables that were hooked to the gate and went to a pipe fastened on the back of the bed. When you came in to unload you backed up to the blower table and hooked a "donkey engine" (a small geared down electric motor) onto the pipe at the back.The engine would turn the pipe, which would wrap up the cable, which would slowly pull the false end gate and the silage would fall out the back of the bed into the blower. Of course, if you left it unattended it would fall off in big clumps and plug the blower, so someone had to stand there with a pitchfork and keep it falling evenly.

And it was great fun to drive the truck as you drove alongside the chopper and tried to keep your speed matched to his so no silage would miss the truck and land on the ground.

By the time I had grown up enough to work for my cousin-in-law Milo, silos had gotten considerably larger, cousin Dwayne had a 20'x60' and Milo had a 20'x70'. You couldn't very well empty one of these with the old trusty pitchfork; you had to have a silo unloader. Which was a great improvement on one hand and a whole new set of aggravations on the other.

You had to somewhat take the unloader apart and winch it up to the top of the silo before filling it. You had to make sure all the silo doors were put back in place. Woe to you if you had left one out that was now halfway up the silo. It was always terribly dusty in the silo chute. I could get almost panicky when you would dislodge a bunch of old dusty dry silage; it felt like you couldn't breathe. I remember stopping sometimes about halfway up and sticking my nose up to a hole in the chute where a rock had went through , and taking deep breathes while waiting for my panicky feeling to subside.

There was a so-called "distributor" at the top of the silo pipe which was supposed to spread the silage around evenly. But they never seemed to work that well. It was disheartening to climb up and look in after you were done filling and the silage would be real high on one side and way low on the other. Then you had to get the old pitchfork out and get it level, or the silo unloader wouldn't work.

And you had to watch out for silo gas, too. Silo gas is a heavier-than-air gas that sometimes forms and can be deadly. I remember seeing the telltale brown stained silage and finding dead sparrows at the bottom of the chute. I would always climb up several doors above where the silage level would be and look in first before actually going in. And we usually left the blower hooked up and had it running to add fresh air.

The silo unloader consists of two augers with teeth on them that are running in opposite directions. They chew the silage loose and pull it to the center where it feeds into a fan which blows it out the door and down the chute. The whole contraption is pushed round and round the silo by a set of "bull wheels".

Which is wonderful when it works like it's supposed to. But they can be awfully cantankerous. I wouldn't be able to tell you the number of times you're trying to get the evening feeding done and the silage quits coming down.  Oh man! Usually the problem is the bull wheels have spun out, so you crank the silo unloader up maybe twenty cranks hoping they will get going again. Maybe one time out of ten that will work; the other nine times you have to go up and fix it. (I've never been tempted to play the lottery; my luck has always been bad)

Once I was trying to get the feeding done as I just mentioned. It was getting dusky and sure enough, the silage quit coming. The cranking up trick didn't work, so up the chute I go. If it was dusky outside, it was pretty near dark inside that chute. I started on up hoping by the time I got to the silage level my eyes would be adjusted enough to see what the trouble might be.

I hadn't gone very far and was just about to put my hand on the next rung when something made me pause. There was a dark shape on that rung that looked to be on the way down.  There were some great big black snakes that hung around the silos and barns, with all the grain that attracted mice, they had a great life there. Anyway, this was the grandaddy of them all, all six foot of him and about as thick as  my wrist. And seeing he had probably been on his way down  before I had started my way up, I thought it only courteous of me to give him the right of way. You know, sorta like a one lane bridge. If the cows had to wait a little for their morning feeding it wouldn't hurt them too much just this once.

Another time I was feeding the heifers at cousin Dwayne's farm and the silo unloader quit running altogether. We never had a proper control switch there; we just flipped the breaker to start and stop it.

It was almost dark this time also. I flipped the breaker back and forth. Sometimes there would be a loose connection in the breaker box. No luck. So I begin to climb.

It is very dark in the silo; I can't see a thing. I crawl thru the door and onto the arm that runs over to the unloader. I jump off down to the silage level. Well, in my flipping the breaker back and forth I had forgotten which way I had left it.  And when I jumped off the unloader arm I made the silo cord wiggle and the bad connection that was instead in the silo cord plug made contact and the silo unloader roared to life.

Talk about a few seconds of sheer terror.  I'm in midair and underneath somewhere (I still can't see a thing) is this unloader with its augers and its sharp teeth. I had the presence of mind to remember which way the unloader rotated in the silo, so I carefully walked that direction. I walked till I bumped into the drive shaft that ran to the bull wheels. Then I knew where the augers were so I worked my way to the center and felt for the cord and finally got it unplugged and got the unloader stopped.

Once in the same silo I was throwing down with a pitchfork because the silo unloader was on the blink. When I had thrown down what I thought should be enough I looked down the chute and it had plugged up and I couldn't get out. I crawled up to the top of the chute but the ladder that went down the outside was halfway around the silo from the chute. The only way to get there would have been to go hand over hand hanging by your fingers on the silo blocks and I didn't quite have the guts for that. So I sat up at the top like a flightless pigeon and yo-hooed out of a crack every so often until Dwayne happened to finally hear me and came and dug me out.

These days as dairys get larger  the upright silos are sitting idle and farmers are using bunker silos instead. I think both of the silos where I had so many adventures and put in so much toil are now standing empty; lonely old monuments to the past. Even with all their aggravations, I can't help but feel a little nostalgic about them.

Then of course, I haven't had to get the cows fed for quite a few years now.

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