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From hand husking to chopping silage, corn harvest holds special memories

Mychal Wilmes recalls the changing challenges of corn harvest, from hand husking to equipment problems.

A dried ear of corn hangs from a corn stalk, with the sun on the horizon in the distance.
Methods of harvesting corn have changed over the years.
Jenny Ring / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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The hay mow was filled to the rafters with hay and straw bales, but the ear corn supply was gone as September approached. Oats and barley were decent substitutes until the new-crop corn moved from the milk stage to near-maturity.

Homemade machetes and corn knives were used to open fields. Stalks were tossed on a hay wagon to be fed to cattle. Nobody liked the clumsy work, though Dad insisted that nothing compared to building corn shocks or picking corn by hand in the many cold and wet Octobers and Novembers.

He bet that none of us could keep up with him, which is probable given that the best husker using a thumb, wrist, and palm hook might toss 80 bushels to 90 bushels of corn against the bang board a day. With yields being what they were, two or three acres could be harvested in a great day.

Dad recalled that often snow was on the ground when he finished picking corn with the help of a patient horse team and wagon.

However, he liked husking corn much more than milking cows by hand or machine. The responsibility fell to his sons when they were old enough.

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An old corn binder that once was pulled by horses was used on some corn fields. Stalks and ears were fed into a stationary chopper that had been purchased at junk price for that purpose.

Corn ears were still too wet when time came to run it through the hammermill. The small-bore screens were replaced with larger ones so that the machine would not plug with wet corn. It was maddening when a screen plugged because it took a long time to clear it.

State, regional, and national husking competitions were popular in the Corn Belt up until World War II, when the events were halted. In the 1920s, 126,000 people gathered in Iowa to watch 21 winners from 11 state compete. In November 1934, the national contest was held in Fairmont, Minnesota.

The Wallace’s Farmer sponsored the event, which drew national media attention. The Fairmont Daily Sentinel reported at the time that 100,000 people attended and vehicle traffic overwhelmed the small Minnesota town.

Ted Balko of Redwood County, Minnesota, won the contest for the fourth time.

Local and statewide events were revived in the 1980s. The contests often include teenagers as well as contestants in their eighties. Horses pulled wagons and the harvest was weighed with deductions for husks.

One year Dad purchased silage-specific seed corn from a salesman who said the variety produced a higher sugar content, taller stocks, and smaller ears. Cows will milk better eating the silage, the salesman said.

For several years, a friend and farmer filled silos for those who didn’t have a chopper, wagons, or a blower. When he quit, my older brothers bought their own equipment. Dad focused on cleaning silage spilled around the blower and helped guide tractor drivers to the chute.

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He did that in the nightmarish fall of 1968, when record wetness combined with military commitments slowed harvest to a standstill. Fields were so wet that two tractors were used to pull the chopper, and the mud and cold caused equipment problems. The much-delayed silage harvest continued into December. By then the leaves were gone and silage quality was as miserable as the tractor driver who pulled wagons to the blower. Wagon tie-rods were brittle as spaghetti and broke if a wagon was turned too short.

I was convinced at the time that it was the worst harvest ever. I was wrong about that because the worst silage-filling challenge came in the fall days after Dad died. Pulling the silage wagon up to the blower without Dad’s help was a sorrow that shook me to the very soul.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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