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Chopping silage

By Staff | Sep 14, 2012

CHRIS KNUDSEN uses a three-row John Deere chopper to throw silage into his father’s wagon. Knudsen and his brother, Cordell Knudsen, have been helping chop since they were 12 years old. “Like most city kids, I was only tending to our lawn behind a push mower at that age,” said Doug Clough, who spent time with the Knudsens as they finished chopping and began eyeing the upcoming harvest season.



(Editor’s note: This a series of monthly articles in which staff writer Doug Clough, a city boy, visits area farms and works for part of a day and writes about his experiences.)

IDA GROVE – Every couple should have something endearing from their early years that binds them together as time passes.

For example, no matter how long we’ve been together, my wife still recalls the time when I once mistakenly called a silage pit a culvert. I will not likely make the same mistake after spending time with Burdelle Knudsen and his sons, Cordell and Chris, who chopped silage this past week.

BURDELLE KNUDSEN pulls his wagon in behind another that has just been filled with silage. The Knudsens have one person chopping, three people pulling wagons and two others that compact the silage. Staff Writer Doug Clough said he learned that silage, unlike many other food products, has to be kept warm to keep from spoiling and compacting by tractors helps to get the job done.

The Knudsens farm more than 3,000 acres of land and finish cattle.

Heading south on Ida County’s Market Avenue, I drove into a flurry of activity at the Knudsen Farm silage pit. Two John Deere tractors, like ants on their mound, were crawling on the silage in the pit. Another tractor, this one pulling a wagon, drove by where I was parked.

Driver Kevin Neubauer motioned for me to park in a safer place. Neubauer’s wife Tammy was driving another Deere on the mound, subbing for Cordell Knudsen’s wife, Barb Knudsen, who was working at the National Resource Conservation Service in Ida Grove.

Cordell Knudsen, the second operator on the mound, drove toward me; dropping down out of the cab to greet me, he beckoned me to climb up.

“It’s a 4620,” Knudsen said. “She’s been around awhile, but we like our early ’70s John Deere.”

STANDING BY THEIR John Deere equipment after three days of silage work are, from left, Cordell, Burdelle and Chris Knudsen. The trio farms more than 3,000 acres and use their silage to finish cattle. Burdelle, the eldest Knudsen, has been farming Ida County land for 46 years.

The Knudsens have four such tractors, plus other vintages.

“Tammy and I are leveling out and packing down the silage,” Knudsen said. “The hardest part of this job is keeping up with the wagons that are bringing it in. If the silage is too loosely packed, it could spoil.”

Hmmm, food spoiling because it isn’t warm enough. It’s yet another new lesson for me. A second wagon entered the area, this one pulled by family friend Ross Fedderson.

Knudsen’s tractor had a bucket on the front, pushing the piles left by the wagon. Both were constantly in action up and down the mound, and Knudsen had the main job of leveling out the piles. “Do you want to try to drive this tractor?” Knudsen asked, as he maneuvered the tractor’s big wheels within millimeters of the pit’s concrete wall.

When I was 15, I learned to drive a stick shift in a Des Moines grocery store parking lot. I got so frustrated with my dad’s stern commands at my marginal performance that I threatened to walk home. My dad’s five-speed didn’t have nearly as many controls, no slippery silage to drive on, foot-thick concrete walls to avoid, or three other tractors to dance with.

No, I did not want to learn to drive a tractor as part of a crop-chopping operation.

A third Deere-pulled wagon entered the pit area, this one tugged along by Burdelle Knudsen, 65, who has been farming full-time since he was 19. Climbing up into his 4230 Deere, we took the ride to the field where their 25 acres were being chopped. We turned west into one of the Knudsens’ corn fields, where Burdelle Knudsen switched places with the wagon pulled by Fedderson, which just finished being filled.

Knudsen has been doing this type of work for 46 years and the transition was seamless. He monitored his tractor’s gauges, position and pace with the tractor that was beside him chopping the corn. “There are satellite systems that help farmers do this kind of thing,” said the eldest Knudsen. “We’re not quite that fancy.”

Reared by a do-it-yourself dad, I appreciate a job that still took good old-fashioned cooperation between family and friends. It all seemed much like a synchronized swimming event – everyone in time with each other for the good of the group.

The Knudsens were in their third day of this chore, and they were on their way to a gold medal in this event.

Next, I climbed up into Chris Knudsen’s 4430 Deere to get the chopping experience. “We use a three-row chopper,” Knudsen said. The family’s affinity for the John Deere brand was confirmed by the yellow and green chopper. “I’ve been chopping since I was 12,” the 41-year-old Knudsen said. Older brother Cordell Knudsen started helping prior to his teens, as well.

When I was 12, my largest concern was learning to tend to the lawn behind the push mower and keeping the algae out of our above-the-ground pool.

Near as I could tell, a chopper is a snow blower for corn. Instead of an auger pulling in the contents, belts do the pulling, knives cut off the bottom of the stalk, the inner-workings behave like my office paper shredder, and the rest acts like the chute on a snow blower.

Knudsen watched the heat gauge on his tractor, maintained his speed in relation to the corn stalks and the wagon, turned off and on the chopper when the wagons were switched out, and manipulated the chute’s direction.

When noon came and the job finished, the crew sat down together in Burdelle and Darnelle Knudsen’s abode for a home-cooked meal.

Many cooks I’ve profiled for Farm News have told me of grand lunches made for workers in the field from days gone by.

The Knudsen family, their friendly help, and I gathered in Darnelle’s kitchen. The nine of us enjoyed a farm meal that has been as integral to their way of life as the yellow and green tractors parked outside.

While enjoying garden-fresh corn, macaroni salad, potatoes, and meatloaf rivaling that of my mother’s, we talked about our families, kids’ school activities, and who was already combining in the fields.

It is a scene reminisced about and practiced often in American households, and I was fortunate enough to live it, even just for an hour.

Contact Doug Clough at douglasclough@gmail.com.

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