The Orr family has been farming since 1946 in Apple Creek, Ohio, but the origins of silage in production agriculture dates back another 80 years to 1860. James and Jonathan Orr, the father-son team that makes up Orrson Custom Farming Ltd. related the history of silage farming, intertwining the past with their own stories of “back when.”
In a presentation that would have earned high marks from any history teacher, Jon began in France in 1860 when problems with climate would not allow the corn to mature. They had fermented cabbage in a pit for sauerkraut and decided to give it a try with corn. Ten years later it was tried in the U.S. and a timeline of storage facilities followed:
- 1872 – A square, wooden, tower silo was built in Illinois
- 1877 – Farmers in Wisconsin built a pit silo, while a French agriculturalist wrote book on silage production
- 1882 – USDA counts 91 silos in the U.S., most of them in New England
- 1890s – The first round tower silo was build in Wis.
- 1895 – 50,000 silos in U.S.
- 1903 – 300,000 to 500,000 silos in U.S.
- 1924 – Wisconsin was the leader in silos, having twice as many as New York
At this time, all the cutting of corn was done with a corn knife, Jon said. A leg cutter was patented in 1874 by IZ Merriam from Whitewater, Wis. This resulted in no more bending over and harvesting more acres per day.
Before 1880, everything was cut or sized by hand. The length of cut was very long, and the practice of treading down silage was difficult at best, Jon said. Then along came the Hexelbank Ensilage Cutter. It was a hand-cranked cutter, patented by Gehl Bros, for use it the sugar beet industry, but was quickly adapted for silage.
Then came horsepower, with one horse or two, depending on the farm and apparatus. In some instances, horses were used on treadmills running an elevator to carry silage to the top of a silo.
Steam power cutters came next and cutting crews would move from one neighborhood to another.
The first infield silage harvester was developed in 1892. Charles C. Fenno of Iowa patented a ground-powered machine to cut the corn plant and feed the tassel end first into a rotary cutter. Joseph Weigel improved upon that idea by adding an engine and feeding corn in from the bottom of the stalk. The Ronning Ensilage Harvester invented by Adolph Ronning, Boyd, Minn. was released as a tractor version in 1926. Six years later, Fox forage harvesters enter the market with the first harvester with a pickup on the front.
As mechanical harvester got their start, so did the business of custom harvesting. During the World Wars, crews would travel from farm to farm, cutting corn as a business.
This is also about the time when James’ memory of helping with harvest as a farm boy kicked in. His father, Clayton, began harvesting silage for hire with a neighbor in 1946. They started by servicing the area around their homes in Ohio.
James’ job was to ride in the wagon. The early version of an unloading wagon had a canvas floor that was rolled up with an electric motor to move the forage that was piled on top, he recalled. Then entered the false end-gate wagon, which resulted in more total clean-up. Once his father began using manure spreaders with high sides, he no longer had to fork the silage off the back.
According to Jon, the first self-propelled forage harvester was built in 1947 at an experiment station in Kansas. It could chop 30 tons an hour. However, pull-type choppers became most common through the 1950s and 1960s as small operations couldn’t justify the cost of a self-propelled when they already had a tractor in the shed.
The New Idea Uni debuted in the 1960s. Fox and New Holland became major players in the harvester business, as well. John Deere was the first company in the U.S. to put a kernel processor on a self-propelled chopper. Claas came to the U.S. market with its harvesters in the early 1990s.
Jon shared what Claas, New Holland, John Deere and Krone have on market today. He also charted how the numbers of rows and horsepower have changed in the last 30 years.
As he extended his charts over time, Jon shared what he thinks the future may hold for custom harvesters. He said we could expect to see 24-row, 2500 hp self-propelled harvesters 30 years from now. The forage itself would be vacuum-packed in plastic-wrapped storage containers with bar codes that track where, when and what variety of crop was harvested.