For dairy and beef cattle farm families, late summer and early fall is corn chopping time, filled with noise from tractors and choppers, the sweet smell of corn, wisps of corn leaves and stalks swirling in the air.
It’s a season with its own intense pace: Once a silo starts being filled, fresh material needs to be added steadily to ensure the pickling or fermentation process continues.
Interruptions are a problem, even a crisis. Corn cutting can be a dangerous time, with tractors packing steep loads of silage onto ground silos or farmers climbing the upright silo to adjust a pipe that blows corn from the wagon or dump truck through the chute and into a concrete cylinder up to 70 feet high.
Corn cutting is an exercise in precision, especially for the truck drivers following the choppers, who have to maintain a fairly exact distance, often based on signals from the driver ahead. Too far back and the corn falls to the ground. Just a little too forward and you ram the chopper in front. So much equipment, So much noise. A little bit of danger, a fair amount of pressure to keep the system in motion. And ‘most every farmer I know loves to cut corn.
At restaurants, at gas stations or local stores, the conversations now center on this particular harvest: “How many trucks are you running?” “How wet is the field?” “Any breakdowns?” “How green/dry is the corn?”
As traditional as it is, it is also an ever-changing process. In Haywood County, the last century has marked the rise and now the decline of the upright silos that are such symbols of country life. And a century back, the silos replaced another image of farm life, the corn shock.
In the early 20th century, livestock farmers in Haywood County grew corn then shocked it for winter feed, leaving the shocks in the field to dry before transporting them to the barn. There the corn was shucked to be fed as grain and the stalks were fed as fodder. In the Midwest, however, farmers had come up with another method. There, where winters were bitter, farmers began preserving their corn as silage, “green feed,” necessary for dairy cows producing milk. In the 1870s, an Illinois farmer, Fred Match, is credited with building the first modern upright silo. By the 1900s, many farmers were building silos of concrete and stone, and forms were developed to help construction.
Upright silos offered great advantages over storing corn in the ground, particularly cutting dramatically on the amount wasted by rot or freeze.
Haywood County was a leader in silo construction for North Carolina. That may have been in part because it was, by the 1920s, a county with serious soil erosion problems. Haywood also had an active and foresighted Agricultural Extension Service staff determined to bring improved production and quality of life to its farming communities.
There was another player — the banks. In those days, locally owned banks, particularly the First National Bank of Waynesville and its president, Jonathan Woody, actively promoted better farm practices. Banks owned the forms needed to pour concrete for silo construction and would lease them out to farmers for a small fee, said Steve Woody, Jonathan Woody’s son.
These factors contributed to a remarkable number of silos built in Haywood County in the 1930s. Silos improved production and economic success – good for the bank’s customers. And silos helped bring “the plow off the hills” by improving feed quality, meaning farmers no longer needed to grow as much corn on steep, eroding slopes. In 1937, 15 upright and 35 trench silos were built, giving Haywood County more than 250.
In 1940, the Extension Service reported that Haywood had the most upright silos of any county in North Carolina. That year alone, cattlemen had constructed 40 upright silos in Haywood.
“For the past few years the farmers of Haywood County have been depending on the upright and trench silos to furnish ensilage for the beef and dairy animals,” the agency’s annual report stated. “It has been an accepted fact by the dairymen that ensilage is an economical, healthful and palatable feed, but many of the beef producers did not approve of ensilage as feed for their animals; however, over a period of years this erroneous idea has been more of less overcome by many of the leading beef producers using ensilage toa good advantage.
“The trench silo has served its purpose in proving to the farmers that ensilage is an economical food, and at present we find this type of silo decreasing, while the upright silo is increasing. “
The upright silos still required a tremendous amount of work. For most farmers, corn was brought in, often in shocks, where it was hand-fed through a chopper before being deposited in a silo. When it came time to feed, most farmers climbed into the silo, shoveled the silage down a chute, where it was loaded in wheelbarrows and trundled down and out along the feedway. Mechanical unloaders, multi-row corn choppers with wagons or trucks in tow, came later.
Since the 1970s, another trend is emerging. The ground silos are making a comeback, and the uprights are becoming obsolete. There may be a few more, but I know of only four upright silos still in use in Haywood County, two in Crabtree, and two in Fines Creek. There are a number of reasons for the change. The development of plastic covers for silos makes covering a ground silo easier and cuts down on waste, though they still have more spoilage than uprights. Farmers have to be ever-bigger producers in order to survive, and it is easier and cheaper to expand ground silos than to build more uprights.
Safety is also a factor. Ground silos have their dangers, but they do not require climbs up to 70 feet in the air. Then there are the dangerous gases that silage creates in its fermentation process. These gases are concentrated in an upright, whereas they are more easily and safely dispersed with a ground silo.
So ground silos are in resurgence. They may be safer and more economical. But it is unlikely they will ever have the beauty or evoke the memories of the uprights, those tall, stalwart relics of a fast-fading method of farming.
In addition to the author’s own 29 years as a farm wife, sources for this story include the 1934, 1937, 1940 and 1947 annual reports of the Haywood County Agricultural Extension Service; and “Silo: An End to an Era” by Brian Haines of Hutchinson, Minn.