It’s that time of year when a peculiar noise echoes eerily across the countryside. And no, I’m not talking about politicians giving their stump speeches. I mean those insatiable behemoths called silage choppers.
It’s silage chopping time, a season when corn plants are murdered en masse, their corpses disposed of in a in manner reminiscent of the wood chipper scene in the movie “Fargo.”
When I was growing up on our dairy farm, silage chopping was a huge event. This is because this undertaking involved the entire neighborhood. Silage chopping meant numerous neighboring farmers descending on our place, each with a piece of the silage-making puzzle.
A critical part of this puzzle was the blower, which was essentially the Mother Of All Fans. Its air blast was powerful enough to loft silage to incredible heights, perhaps even low earth orbit.
After the blower and its entourage of hollow tubular steel arrived, the pipes were placed on the ground and bolted together. It looked as if a gigantic galvanized snake was sunning itself beside the silo.
One of the men would climb the silo’s open ladder – safety hadn’t yet been discovered – and haul up a block and tackle. One end of the rope would be tied to the pipe and the other attached to a tractor. The tractor crept forward and the pipe gradually became vertical, dangling like a colossal tube-shaped lunker.
This whole operation appeared extremely dangerous, so we kids naturally found it extremely fascinating. It was similar to watching a NASCAR race: you hope that nothing untoward happens, yet are somehow disappointed when it doesn’t.
Spirits among the crew were always high. The atmosphere was carnival-like, and as with most carnivals, you are wise to watch your step.
I was closely observing silo filling operations one fall when I was a little kid. Between loads, one of the men on the silage raking crew pulled what appeared to be a candy bar from his bib overalls pocket. As he unwrapped the treat, I began to salivate at the sight of the delectable swirls of dark brown chocolate.
He unfolded his jackknife, cut a wedge from the bar and, with great relish, began to slowly chew the toothsome treat. I asked if I could also have a piece of candy. With a grin and a wink, he said, “Sure, kid,” and gave me a hearty slice.
I popped the delicacy into my mouth and was immediately overwhelmed by regret. I retched and coughed and spat and ran in circles and wiped my tongue on the ground. The raking crew conveyed their deep concern for me via roars of laughter. Which just goes to show that six-year-olds would be well advised to eschew begging for a treat, especially when it might involve chewing tobacco.
The mass assassination of corn plants may have been grisly, but it was essential. We were storing up calories to sustain our cattle through the long winter so that the cattle could, in turn, sustain us. From our point of view, the success of silage chopping operations was a matter of life and death.
And the cows did seem to deeply enjoy corn silage. Like most kids, I was curious about many things including what the big deal was regarding corn silage. The most direct method was to simply taste it. My reaction was similar to when I tried chewing tobacco.
When the silo was nearly full, two men would climb up into it and use silage forks to “top it off.” This involved shoveling silage to level the mound that inevitably formed at the center of the silo. It also meant dealing with an unrelenting blast of air and chopped corn as fresh silage arrived. I deeply coveted this job.
One autumn I was finally deemed worthy of the top-off crew. A neighbor and I ascended the open ladder, dropped into the nearly full silo and began shoveling like madmen. Whenever possible, we walked around its perimeter, packing the silage, increasing the silo’s storage capacity by several pounds.
There came an especially long gap between loads. The neighbor peeked over the side, then collected several slices of corn cob and began to hurl them at the ground. I quickly saw that he was targeting the raking crew, who were lazing about near the base of the silo. I scrounged up some cob chunks and joined the chucking.
A couple of our cob bombs soon scored direct hits. Startled exclamations rang out down below.
“Better watch out boys!” called down my coconspirator. “Looks like it might hail!”
“Hail” and various other words and phrases floated up to us and echoed eerily across the countryside.
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