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Tipping the scale

My maternal grandfather grew up in Chicago. He came from a family of bricklayers, but that line of work didn’t interest him after he became familiar with it. It wasn’t the work he disliked. It was the work ethic of some of the employees he disliked. He said they were more interested in taking breaks and getting paid regardless of the quality of the job they did.

Grandpa ended up riding the rails instead of laying bricks. He went through Iowa and liked what he saw, so he decided to stay there. He worked on a crew installing drainage tile in farm fields in central Iowa. Eventually, he became a farmer himself. One of things I always remember him talking about from those days was the way they harvested corn. “A good man could pick a hundred bushels a day!”

That was a full day. One guy would grab ears of corn on the stalk, peel them from the husk, and then toss them over his shoulder into the horse-drawn wagon next to him as he moved across a field. The hundred-bushel mark was sort of a measure of worth. If you could harvest a hundred bushels, you were an upright individual. Anything less made you suspect.

My grandfather died 20 years ago, just a few days shy of his 100th birthday. He would make the trip from central Iowa to our farm in northeast Iowa quite a bit, even in his later years. The best part of those visits for me was when we’d get him outside and show him some of the equipment we use on the farm. Even the stuff we had 20-some years ago amazed him. If he saw what we had today, he’d be stunned. The combine we use to harvest corn today is the smallest model John Deere makes. Even so, it will easily harvest a thousand bushels of corn in an hour. A hundred bushels in a day was a big deal in my grandpa’s day, and they were only taking the whole ear of corn with the kernels still attached. The machine I use removes those kernels from the cob and turns out a product that used to require a separate threshing crew in my grandfather’s day.

Everything in agriculture seems to get bigger at an alarming pace. In September we harvest corn for silage. That’s where we take the entire corn plant, cut it off at the base of the stalk, run the whole plant through a series of rotating knives to chop it into pieces about 3/8 in. long, and spew the mixture out a curved pipe into a wagon pulled behind the unit. That silage is dumped from the wagon onto the ground where a tractor is used to push it into a pile. The tractor then drives over the pile repeatedly to pack the material down and eliminate air from the pile so the product will ferment. That fermented feed is then fed to cattle.

The chopper we use for silage is a self-propelled unit. It is similar to a combine, except that it chops up the whole plant rather than taking only the ear of corn. The operator sits in the cab directly in front of the engine and directly over the rotating knives. Pull-type choppers are hooked to a tractor to provide the power necessary to work. The tractor sits to one side of the chopper instead of following down the row like a self-propelled unit.

Part of the harvesting work I do is to go to other farmers’ fields and “open up the field” for them by chopping the outside rows off the field. That allows them to run their pull-type chopper without driving over any rows of corn. They pay me a slightly higher fee per load to open the field than they would if I chopped the whole thing for them.

Our chopper is also the smallest one that John Deere makes. There are two different heads we use for harvesting corn silage. One takes two rows at a time, which are spaced 38 in. apart. The other one takes three rows spaced 30 in. apart. Incidentally, the magic number of 38 came about because it was the standard width of a draft horse during my grandpa’s time. You could get your horse to fit between the rows of corn if they were planted 38 in. apart, but you couldn’t get a horse worthy of working a full day to fit down 30-in. rows.

I’ve always kept up on new equipment. What I discovered this week is that you don’t truly appreciate the advances that have been made until you see it for yourself, just like when my grandfather came to the farm.

Last fall I realized how tiny my self-propelled chopper really is — the one my grandfather would think was a brute. It’s a cupcake compared to the thing I saw coming down the road one night. If you subscribe to Hay & Forage Grower (And who DOESN'T, you ask? Losers, that’s who!), you may have seen an article about corn silage harvesting. The machine in the picture was an older model, but it belongs to Bushman Custom Chopping. Steve Bushman is the guy behind that company. He covers most of Iowa for his work. In addition to chopping silage, he also does some planting and other harvesting, as well as tub grinding of hay. That’s where you take a bale of hay and put it into a giant food processor and basically chop it into confetti so it can be added to cattle rations more easily than long hay. This tiny little 500- or 600-horsepower Caterpillar diesel engine turns a 1,800-pound bale of hay into a pile of chaff in about 45 seconds. It is a wonder to behold.

Steve has usually been a Deere loyalist, but he switched teams in the last year since buying out another operator. Two of his three machines are made by Krone. It was a Krone I saw at the intersection near my place the other night. The monster is powered by a cute little engine with a mere 850 horsepower. The giant corn head folds into three sections. When operating, it harvests 12 rows at a time. That’s a 30-foot-wide path through the field — four times as big as my biggest corn head.

Meeting it on the road is one thing. Seeing it in action is what blows your mind. I had a hunch where they were going, so I stopped by to grab Guy No. 1 and we headed out to watch the show.

We got in the truck and went for a drive past my uncle’s place. Just as we pulled up to the intersection, we noticed a long line of trucks waiting on the road ahead of us. The giant Krone Big X self-propelled forage harvester was just pulling into the field. Like synchronized swimmers, the trucks fell in line behind the chopper and followed behind. Next thing you know, we could hear the howl of the machine as a huge stream of silage came shooting out of its gooseneck (the curved pipe through which the silage blows from the rotating knives into whatever storage unit you fill).

My silage wagons are pulled by the chopper. The power I have allows me to hit the back of the 18-foot wagon with the stream of silage. Steve’s chopper was filling a truck trailing behind it approximately 75 FEET! I’ve known Steve for probably 20 years. When I talked to him at the Hay Expo this summer, he told me a story my grandpa would have loved. His new chopper puts out a stream of silage so big and so powerful that Steve can aim the gooseneck at the very top side of his truck’s wall when it sits on a slightly sloped field and actually tip the truck over when it’s empty! This is a tandem-axle truck with a capacity to carry about 15 to 20 tons in a load! It’s a little bigger than an average garbage truck. I’d be lucky to tip over a cow with the stream of silage from my chopper. You know, not that I’ve tried or anything.

We sat there and watched for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. That half hour of work was about equal to what I do in a good day with the two-row 38-in. corn head on my Deere. I went to bed that night with an incredible inferiority complex. The only thing that allowed me to sleep was the idea that I paid about 30 grand for my chopper and Steve coughed up 400 grand for one Krone, plus who knows how much for the seven trucks to haul all that silage away. Plus, take all that times THREE for all the crews Steve runs! His guys know how to work, too. Grandpa would be proud of them.

I know I haven’t done an adequate job describing this machine to you, so let’s get real. Youtube holds the solution. Here is a link I found to demonstrate how impressive the Krone Big X really is: This is one from a European harvest:

Grandpa would be amazed. Stop by sometime for a visit and I’ll show you around. Of course, at my place, with the scale of my equipment, it won’t be a Modern Marvels episode as much as a Fisher-Price moment.

Guy No. 2

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