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By Staff | Sep 9, 2016

Somewhere in the dusty archives of family photos there’s a black-and-white picture of me (the entire world was monochrome back then) watching a young man rake silage out of a wooden forage wagon.

The young guy, a neighbor kid named Gary, was about 17 at the time. He was at our farm as part of the neighborhood silage run, a group activity that sounds decidedly less fun than a poker run or a beer run.

Gary is tanned and shirtless and has muscles like a Clydesdale. I, on the other hand, am a scrawny 7-year-old whose arms most closely resemble broomsticks.

You needn’t be a mind reader to know what was going through my head when that snapshot was taken. My expression is clearly saying, “What would I give to have real muscles and to rake silage like that.”

Be careful what you wish for. Within a few years of that photo being taken, I was indeed raking silage from the back end of a forage box. But for some reason – call it a cosmic bait-and-switch – I never developed any workhorse-like muscles.

In the photo, Gary is raking silage into our Kelly Ryan grain elevator. This was unusual, as silos are generally filled by blowers.

These powerful, fan-like machines blast a stream of fodder into a silo with enough force to knock over an adult moose. Although I don’t know what a moose might be doing in a silo.

When that photo was taken, we had a small silo in the center alley of our sprawling old gambrel barn. The silo measured 14 feet across by 16 feet high and held approximately as much forage as a single load on a modern silage truck.

I have no idea who built that little silo, but I do know this: it was all done by hand. Thanks to the restrictions imposed by the barn’s doors, every yard of concrete for the silo’s foundation and each of its cement staves had to be manually carried into the barn.

This isn’t all that surprising. Our farm has been owned by Norwegians since it was homesteaded, and our people are known for doing things the hard way.

The silo’s pint-sized stature meant it could be filled with our elevator. But first we had to lower the humungous hayloft door at the end of the barn.

This was accomplished via a convoluted rope-and-pulley system which hung from a steel track that was bolted to the barn’s rafters.

Lowering the barn door each fall was an exhilarating event. We kids watched from a safe distance as the ancient mechanism creaked and groaned. It was every bit as riveting as viewing an Apollo rocket launch on TV.

One autumn, the hemp rope broke while the hayloft door was being lowered. Dad used an ancient and mystic cordage repair method to splice the rope in such a way that it could still pass through the pulleys. This skill would be a outstanding addition to anyone’s resume.

When the silo neared the full point, my siblings and I were pressed into duty as packers – and I don’t mean the kind who hail from Green Bay. Packing was a simple job that consisted solely of walking on the silage as it tumbled from the elevator.

Who needs aerobic classes when you can trudge through an ever-growing pile of loose silage?

As the silo filled, we gradually drew closer to the rafters. We got a clear view of the dusty realm that was ruled by the pigeons and the sparrows. It seemed as if we could almost touch their unkempt nests, but we had to pay attention lest we step off the side of the silo.

It wasn’t the fall that we feared so much as the sudden stop at the bottom.

Silage harvest is no longer such a hands-on operation. Choppers the size of dreadnaughts rumble through the fields, gobbling corn by the acre and spewing torrents of fodder that would rival the flow of Niagara Falls.

The silage is trucked to the farmyard and is quickly and effortlessly dumped onto the ground. Colossal tractors bulldoze the feedstuff into a pile and pack it. Being a packer nowadays means sitting on a cushy seat and listening to the radio in climate-controlled comfort.

I recently visited a dairyman who was in the midst of harvesting silage. I sat in the cab of his new chopper, which had a control panel that looked as though it belonged in a space shuttle.

We stood atop his soaring silage pile; it was much taller than 16 feet. I had to admire the industry and ingenuity of it all.

But, really. How can any of that build up a guy’s muscles?

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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