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From the Woodlot
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From the Woodlot

From the Woodlot

If I were a bumper-sticker guy, which I emphatically proclaim I am not and never have been, my bumper sticker would say, “Have I Told You Lately About My Silo Unloader Issues?” I bet I’d see a lot of thumbs-up gestures from pre-geriatric males driving F150s and wearing feed caps here in America’s Dairyland.

There were a number of things they didn’t cover in the dairy-science curriculum when I attended college. What to do when 100 dairy cows become spooked while crossing the road in a lightning storm comes to mind. How to milk my cows in a barn that has succumbed to 110-mile-per-hour straight-line winds was also never discussed in any class. I could teach a class in that. The No. 1 lesson would be, “have a patient, strong and willing spouse.”

The principle of silage-making was thoroughly covered in dairy-cattle-nutrition classes. I don’t think top-unloading silo unloaders were ever mentioned. One shouldn’t be able to earn a dairy-science degree without needing to climb the interior chute of a silo in January to change doors as the feed level lowers. It’s a process done weekly on most farms that use uprights. Better yet one should need to climb the chute with a bucket of tools in one hand and a rope tied to a chipping tool around the waist, when the unloader malfunctions and or the frozen silage needs to be chipped from the interior walls.

The interior of a silo chute is a dark place, a vertical tunnel along the outside of the silo running the length of the unit where feed is thrown down by the silo unloader. I’m sure even a brand-new one comes with cobwebs. After several years those cobwebs are traps for fine silage particles. Unless I’m wearing a hermetically sealed suit some of those fine silage particles will – beyond a shadow of doubt – make their way down the back of my neck when climbing the chute. And at some point I can feel those frozen particles working their way down my back. If the belt isn’t good and tight they don’t stop at the waistline. Need I explain the sensation any further? One good thing with overalls, eventually they can be shaken from the bottom cuff.

A silo unloader is a feat of engineering involving a drive wheel heavy enough and designed with traction to move an auger across the face of the silage in a circular direction, conforming to the inside diameter of the silo. It carries the silage to the center of the unit where heavy paddles that also act as fan blades housed in a shroud pick up fresh silage. They blow it through a continuation of the shroud – shaped like an arc, directing the feed out the silo door opening. From there the silage cascades down the tunnel into waiting carts, or into feed wagons of various configurations and designs. It’s eventually fed to cattle.

In order to make the process happen there are motors, bearings, belts, pulleys, gears, bushings, woodruff keys, cold-rolled-steel shafts, and nuts and bolts behind the scenes. That’s why a bucket of tools is necessary when something’s awry with the unloader. And after I snake my way into the 18-inch-square opening and clear the dust from my eyes to ascertain the dilemma it’s almost certain I won’t have the right wrench, vice grip, needle-nose pliers, Torx bit, hammer or pry bar needed to fix it.

Remember the patient, strong and willing spouse I mentioned earlier? My silo-unloader days were back in the pre-cell-phone era. My wife, Wendy – often with a child on her back – helped with every aspect of the daily chore routine then. She’d be at the bottom throwing the breaker handle per my instructions conveyed to her while I watched the unit to see what the problem was.

“Turn it on,” I’d yell while standing opposite the direction of travel of the drive wheel. “If the ammeter needle sticks all the way to the right shut it off right away, otherwise 10 seconds.”

It’s impossible to do anything that requires dexterity while wearing chopper mitts. Even the simplest of maladies like replacing a shear bolt is challenging during January in a Wisconsin upright silo. Especially when I’m lying on my side craning my neck to see the offending shear bolt, barely in reach past the auger flight and an unforgiving gear box. That’s where I’d need to weigh the efficiency of trying to explain where on the workshop wall my needle-nose vice grips with the 90-degree bend was hanging – versus climbing down and fetching them myself. But as any farmer knows a broken shear bolt is just a blip in the radar compared to a shot gear box or inoperable motor.

Silo unloader issues – there were many along the way. When our silo blew down in 1997 we’d already stopped using it all together. That put an end to my accumulation of unloader stories. Speaking of which, have I told about the time an unloader fell on me when I worked on a Georgia dairy farm? Perhaps another day …

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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