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Corn silage choreography

Slideshow: Swift County, Minnesota, custom corn-chopping business aims to harvest and pack more than 11,000 acres of corn in less than two weeks for local dairies.


In less than a two-week period, weather-permitting, more than 11,000 acres of corn stretching over three west-central Minnesota counties were getting custom-harvested for six dairies.

CY Harvesting exclusively works with the Riverview LLP dairy system in the region. The custom harvesting business was formed nearly a decade ago and currently is owned by nine area crop farmers.

With harvest in full swing, it’s a sight to behold on each dairy site as semitrucks unload silage 24/7 on asphalt lots. Tractors with front-end dozers push and grate silage, building 6-inch layers as they go. Tractors pulling box scrapers pack the silage, driving over and over with four sets of duals.

Dozens of players in this corn silage choreography know their places. Workers are trained and briefed daily in meetings. They are in continual communication via in-cab radios and cellphones. Communication is vital, because safety comes first with Riverview management and CY Harvesting.

At Louriston Dairy, west of Willmar, Minn., chopping started Sept. 7, when corn was averaging 65% moisture. This yet-to-open dairy will milk 9,500 cows later this fall. A few days after chopping began, The Farmer was welcomed to ride along and see crews in action. The following is what we observed and learned.

Traffic control
David Yost with Riverview, who is in charge of the Swift County, Minnesota, forage segment, provided background on CY, the dairies and local impact. He oversees feed procurement for six Riverview dairies and estimated a corn silage harvest of 260,000 tons from 63 fields. Riverview does not own area cropland. Rather, it buys corn and alfalfa harvested by CY from its neighbors.

That day, 105 workers — mostly neighbors — signed in for a safety meeting to get oriented before their shift. Twelve-hour shifts run from 2 to 2, and everything shuts down on Sundays.

Weather plays a major factor in corn moisture, and how quickly the crop is harvested and covered. It was hot and windy when we visited.

“We are hitting it with everything we got,” Yost says. They had 3,800 acres to chop for Louriston.

As he drove his truck around the field perimeter, Yost’s 32-channel radio, tuned into the Swift system channel, emitted intermittent questions and information about equipment locations and chopping progress.

Neighbor involvement is the centerpiece of this well-organized forage harvest venture. Area corn and soybean farmers know the fields and roads, which boosts efficiency.

Speaking of roads, Yost says a Riverview crew works to keep them clean with routine scraping during harvest. They also water gravel roads to minimize dust, and reblade them when harvest is done in an area.

“Dairies work well here, as they provide another outlet for corn and an option [for local farmers] to raise alfalfa,” Yost says. Plus, cropland benefits from the dairies’ manure.

Riverview doesn’t specify which hybrids to plant.

“Farmers are free to plant what they want,” he adds. “They need that flexibility in case the crop is needed for grain.”

Race against time
Adam Zeltwanger started chopping corn at age 10 with a self-propelled John Deere 5460. A lot has changed since then. Now he’s monitoring an autosteer Claas 970, chopping 16 rows at once, obtaining that 19-mm theoretical silage cut and harvesting 5 to 6 tons per minute.

He fills one semi and then pulls to the edge of the field next to a stocked truck for a chopper "pit stop." Within 20 minutes, Zeltwanger and a crew have refueled the chopper and pumped silage inoculant into a holding tank; cleaned all its windows, sensors and cameras; greased all the automation; and blew out chaff from the head.

When Zeltwanger pulls the chopper back into the field, he takes a few minutes to engage the chopper to automatically sharpen knives and realign the shear bar. That’s just enough time to grab a quick snack, too. Then it’s back to the task at hand.

“Working within the Riverview system, it’s a lot like when my grandfather moved here in 1918,” Zeltwanger says. The farms and equipment are larger and more expensive, yet the culture is similar: Neighbors are helping neighbors.

“We’re getting together again,” he says. “We’re all working together and trying to do a good job within our segments. It’s getting back to the old ways of being neighborly.”

On the move
Josh Noble drove one of the semis that hauled silage from the field to the pile site on the dairy. He has been driving trucks for 13 years and has done so here for three. He notes that this year’s weather, thus far, is perfect since it’s on the drier side.

“Last year, it was a muddy mess,” he says.

As we sit near the end of the field, Noble watches another semi getting loaded with silage and anticipates where we need to be. We head for the end of a row and wait for the full semi to pull away. Noble’s semi eases alongside the chopper now, hovering around 3 mph, and lines up the semi’s front wheels with the chopper head.

“The chopper and [semi] driver need to be on the same page,” he says. Noble started hauling sugarbeets when he was 16, so he has that innate sense about knowing where to go. Still, the chopper operator radios him and keeps him up to date on where he is needed.

Noble keeps an eye on his side mirror, watching the chopper spout and making sure the silage stream stays in the middle of the truck bed. It takes only a few minutes to fill the semi. He pulls away and heads for the dairy. When he arrives, he pulls the semi onto a scale. This particular load weighed 56,540 pounds.

He waits for a dozer operator to tell him where to dump his silage load.

“The guys in the dozers are the boss,” he says. “They tell you where to drop. They’re responsible for shaping the pile as it goes up.”

Over and over
From a distance, the dozers and packer tractors look like mechanical ants climbing over a green pile. And then you see flashes of bright yellow.

Everyone on site wears highly visible reflective gear — either shirts or vests. All visitors are given safety vests.

Matt Mortenson is a dozer operator. With all the movement here on the packing site, he reiterates what others have said: Safety is the first priority for CY.

Dozer and tractors are either 9000 Series John Deeres or Case 580-600s — all around 560 to 600 horsepower and weighing 50,000 to 60,000 pounds each. Dozers are fitted with 20-foot front blades. Packing tractors pull box scrapers.

A dozer is responsible for pushing up fresh chop and shaping the bunker pile. As Mortenson goes up, over and back down, he leaves about a 4- to 6-inch layer of silage for packing. The eight-wheel duals on the dozers and tractors help pack the silage tight, getting out as much air as possible to reduce the possibility of spoilage.

When Mortenson is done with an area on the pile, packing tractors move in and ride over and over the pile. It’s a combination of art and experience when gauging how many times a tractor should drive over the pile. Bottom line: The pile needs to be packed tight, so it can ferment.

The finished silage pile at Louriston — nearly 90,000 tons — measured 675 feet long by 345 feet wide by 34 to 36 feet tall. After dealing with some wind, more than 100 workers helped cover the silage with an oxygen barrier film and a plastic tarp. Hundreds of split tires were laid on top to keep the covering in place.

One more pile done. One more high-quality feed source for hungry bovines.



TAGS: Corn
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