Soggy farms band together in corn chopping bee

FORDVILLE, N.D. -- There was no way to get trucks into the fields in south-central Walsh County after 2 feet of snow and another inch of rain in October. But a neighborhood group of about 11 farmers resourcefully came together to get about 700 ac...

FORDVILLE, N.D. - There was no way to get trucks into the fields in south-central Walsh County after 2 feet of snow and another inch of rain in October.

But a neighborhood group of about 11 farmers resourcefully came together to get about 700 acres of corn silage corn out of the fields while the corn still had feed value. They started harvesting Oct. 13, the day after the blizzard that swept across North Dakota, and by Oct. 23 had only two farms left to go.

"There's no way we can get this off unless we come up with some way to pull trailers through the corn and do the harvesting," says Keith Gemmill, 63, of Fordville.

The farmers could have used four-wheel-drive tractors up to trucks and pull them through, but a lot of their fields are small and that wouldn't be feasible.

The answer?


Farmers modified manure spreaders, added high wooden sides and removed the spreader portion from the back end of the spreader, using the chains to unload the load. The spreaders haul a third what a regular truckload can take. The difference is that they're more maneuverable. The tractors are large, compared to the spreaders, and with enough of them - as a corn chopping bee - they can keep the chopper going at full capacity.

Plus, the manure spreaders can be driven up on top of a silage pile to unload. The four-wheel-drive tractors with big flotation tires could move them through almost anything - sometimes through a foot of water.

Neighbors calling

On Oct. 21, the group was at Edgewood Ranch, run by Travis Bell at Fordville.

Since he'd gotten 24 inches of snow, he didn't know whether he'd get his 65 acres of silage corn in.

"Neighbors started calling each other and kind of figured out what we were going to do," he said. "Everybody's trying to help each other out so we can get it done."

The crew started despite despite six-tenths of an inch of rain that morning. Bell was pushing the silage up into the pile, and it was looking good.

"We're supposed to get a bunch of bawling calves in here at the end of the month or the beginning of the next month, and it's going to be a struggle 'cuz it's probably in the worst condition ever been for bringing new calves in," he said. " It's going to be one challenge after another."


He says he may fence off some pastures to serve as a temporary feedlot.

"We don't know when Mother Nature's going to bring us winter, so ..." he said.

Difference in corn

Gemmill explains that silage corn has different genetics than grain corn.

Yes, grain corn can be used for silage, but silage varieties are designed to be more forage-based, with higher tonnage, Gemmill says. Silage corn is still green because it's a "longer-day" corn - 102-day maturity corn - while grain corn in this area might be about 80-day corn. The ideal moisture content for silage corn is 65%. Corn that is drier than that has problems in fermentation in silage piles.

"I think for the most part it's a real good crop of corn," Gemmill says. He would hope for 25 tons an acre, the yield producers here shoot for.

There's less rush getting grain corn off the field. When the fields firm or freeze, the corn can be harvested as late as next spring.

Ironically, the wet weather is preventing them from harvesting the silage corn while it still has moisture and is able to store well.


"As odd as that sounds, that's what the problem is," Gemmill says.

Wet makes dry

On rainy, cool days, it doesn't dry much but "once the plant freezes and the plant starts to die, it starts to dry down," Gemmill says.

There is only a matter of days before it loses its optimum silage value.

Some producers have federal crop insurance on silage corn, but some don't. "If we don't get this off it'll just be discarded, or combined as high-moisture corn," Gemmill says.

Gemmill farms about 1,000 acres. He farms with his son, Andy, 30, and grandson, Layne, 16. The Gemmills have a mixed grain and livestock operation. In about a month, they'll start filling an 800-head feedlot with cattle. Depending on market conditions, they'll either background their calves - or feed until ready for finishing - or feed to market weight for shipping to a slaughter plant.

Half of the Gemmills' crops are destined to be feed for their cattle feedlot. They produce alfalfa, forage barley and 100 acres of corn silage. They've harvested this year's hard red spring wheat but still have sunflowers and soybeans left to go.

Gemmill says one of the satisfying aspects of the corn-chopping bee is what it means about his community.


"None of us can do this on our own," he said.

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