Safe, Efficient, and Effective Silage Piles

High-quality forage is the essential foundation upon which every good dairy diet is built. Missing a step or cutting corners will ultimately increase shrink, decrease quality and negatively affect cattle performance. We depend on bacteria, both naturally occurring and supplemented, to ferment and preserve forage and high-moisture grains. Virtually all these bacteria need a low-oxygen environment to efficiently do their job. The final step of harvest – and one of the most critical steps – is to effectively cover and seal our bunkers and piles to limit oxygen and protect the forages.

Covering piles is hard work and, without a doubt, one of those jobs where you “find out who your real friends are.” Sealing the pile properly should begin as soon as possible when the packing implements are done on the pile. Prompt and proper sealing can reduce or even eliminate the need to remove and discard spoiled surfaces, which can also be a huge safety risk. With all the supply chain challenges we are faced with today, it’s important to prepare well ahead of harvest. Here are some recommendations to help you get the job done safely, efficiently and effectively.

1. Safety is paramount in all that we do

This is especially true when working around today’s large piles and bunkers. Make sure everyone is equipped with high-visibility vests and gloves. It is wise to hold a safety and planning meeting prior to covering your feed. Be sure everyone is well informed about staying a safe distance from all silage faces on the entire feed pad. Make sure your farm crew is aware of new traffic from the harvest crew and the harvest crew is aware of daily farm traffic patterns. Enlist your employees’ help in identifying safety issues. Ask them to help you identify and correct potential safety risks as soon as they see them.

2. Communication can be difficult on large piles, especially in windy conditions

Consider using radios or other methods of communication to make sure workers are well coordinated in their efforts.

3. Have enough tires/sidewalls to cover the entire pile with tires touching

Tires keep oxygen from entering beneath the plastic, thus reducing dry matter loss and spoilage.

4. Order enough plastic and vapor barrier to cover the entire pile

Account for overlap as well as 3 to 4 feet of extra plastic around edges to allow for proper sealing of the perimeter.

5. Properly prepare the bunker or pile site

We don’t want the cow to start her meal with a dirty plate. Properly prepare the site by removing all old feed or potential contaminants.

6. Keep water away

Check that the bunker is sloped properly and landscaped to shed water away from stored feed.

7. Keep mud and dirt away too

Keeping mud and dirt out of the silage will improve fermentation and reduce the likelihood of negative clostridial problems.

8. Repair any holes in bunker sidewalls

Holes are another opportunity for oxygen to enter and negatively impact forage quality.

9. Discard tires and sidewalls with exposed steel cords

Steel cords can damage the plastic and cause injuries to personnel.

10. Stage tires prior to harvest

Organize tires in a spot where they can be quickly and efficiently moved to the pile. This can be improved by strapping or tying tires together, which allows you to quickly pick up and move the tires with forks. Keeping tires organized and the area clean can also reduce the likelihood of vermin, such as mice or rats, and their predators from moving in and compromising feed quality.

11. Line sidewalls

Lining bunker sidewalls can significantly reduce shrink and improve quality. If employing this strategy, consider placing something on top of the rough concrete wall edges to keep them from ripping the plastic. Some things that have worked well include plastic drainage tile that has a slot cut lengthwise or a drag hose cut lengthwise and fastened on top of the sidewall.

12. Use equipment to boost efficiency

Consider investing in or leasing equipment that reduces manual labor and speeds up the process. Examples of this include telehandlers, tire shooters, etc.

13. Put tires around the pile

Prior to covering, strategically place tires around the pile to get them to where they are needed on the surface more efficiently.

14. Downhill is better than uphill

If it can be done safely and practically, haul tires to top of piles so the covering crew can carry them downhill instead of uphill.

15. Carefully handle plastic rolls

Large rolls of plastic can be difficult to handle. Make sure you have a spool or other dispensing device that will handle the roll without damaging it.

16. Protect the plastic and be safe while you cover

Prior to covering, make sure the people involved receive some instruction about the process and contingencies that may need to be considered. Some examples of this include:

  • Wear footwear that doesn’t have sharp edges or tread which will damage plastic.
  • Depending on the size of the pile, plan to overlap seams by at least 4 to 10 feet. Gorilla or Ag-Bag repair tape can be helpful in holding the overlap in place until you put down tires.
  • Plastic should be overlapped in such a way that water sheds off the pile rather than seeping between the layers.
  • Silo gases are very dangerous, even in piles. Under no circumstances should anyone ever get under the plastic. For this reason, as well as others, keep children away from piles.
  • Wind can make covering more challenging and always seems to show up at covering time. In cases of strong wind, hold the edges of the plastic lower to the silage surface while pulling it over the pile. This helps keep wind from catching the plastic. This is a safety issue as well. Workers should be instructed to let go if wind catches plastic and their feet leave the silage surface.
  • If using tire sidewalls, make sure they are placed with the cut side up to avoid damaging plastic.
  • Avoid throwing tires, as this can also damage plastic.

Well-managed piles and bunkers can yield high-quality, clean, productive forages and high-moisture grains. Taking these steps can improve safety, reduce shrink and enhance cow health and performance.

Adapted from Andy Carlson for Progressive Dairy.