The Farmer: Sometimes a good summer isn't all that good
One in an occasional series
September 29, 2013 8:00 AM
Latrobe dairy farmer Ralph Frye adjusts his equipment as he loads corn silage into a storage bag. The silage is part of the feed he will use throughout the winter to give to his herd.
Latrobe dairy farmer Ralph Frye adjusts his equipment as he loads corn silage into a storage bag. It takes Mr. Frye about 20 loads to fill one bag, and he fills three to four bags.
By Ann Belser / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eight white plastic grain bags are spread out across Ralph Frye's farm in Unity like oversized caterpillars.
Each of the 150-foot-long bags is 8 feet in diameter and holds about 210,000 pounds of corn silage, the term for the entire corn stalk and the ears all chopped into small pieces.
It will take until about Christmas for that material to fully ferment so it is perfect for the cows of Mr. Frye's herd, but he doesn't plan to wait that long. By mid-October, the silage will be good enough, developing an earthy, vinegary scent of fermentation.
He will start mixing the new silage with last year's crop, one that was so bad he blamed it for the loss of about 600 pounds of milk annually from each of his 40 milk cows.
Once they are eating the better mix, he expects milk output to rise to more than 21,100 pounds a year for each cow.
It's one of the tough truths about farming -- a bad year can affect a farmer well into good times.
Last summer's heat and dry weather affected the corn crop that became the silage Mr. Frye's herd is now eating in their feed mix: a mixture of the corn silage, corn kernels, soybeans and haylage, which is hay that has been put into a 60-feet-high silo and also allowed to ferment.
Last summer's silage lacked enough moisture to truly set up well, and Mr. Frye said its poor nutritional value put his milking cows under stress.
But this was a good summer.
For many farmers, this was too good of a summer.
Corn is priced by the bushel. At this time last year, 53 percent of the nation's corn crop strangled by heat and drought was rated as poor or very poor by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last week, just 16 percent of the corn crop was rated poor or worse and 55 percent was good or excellent.
A good or excellent crop means the commodity prices of corn will decline in this harvest.
In August 2012, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, the price for a bushel of corn in Illinois was $8.15. This year there was more corn, so in August a bushel of feed corn sold for $5.98.
Corn prices don't mean much to Mr. Frye, since he grows his own to feed it to his own cows.
On years when the prices are high, he has the satisfaction of saving money. But in years when it would be cheaper to buy feed, it stings. It took Mr. Frye two weeks to fill those bags in his yards with corn silage.
"I just did 100 loads. Do you know how monotonous it is to do 100 loads?"
That kind of monotony is what he blames for many farm accidents nationwide.
"After 70 loads, you start to do things you wouldn't do that first day," he said.
Farm communities all over the country are peppered with stories of farmers and farm hands who have been killed in the course of the most mundane chores, such as when tractors roll over onto operators who have used the same vehicle on the same hillsides for decades.
It's a dangerous business, particularly in the hills of Pennsylvania where crops are grown along precarious slopes.
Mr. Frye has been both careful and lucky.
He doesn't talk about the risk, but a recent cut of hay had to be done along the side of a steep hill. The edge of the field was just a few feet above the level where the hill became more of a cliff.
Not far from Mr. Frye's farm, a 78-year-old farmer in South Huntingdon was killed Sept. 10 in a tractor rollover accident as he was mowing a field.
Westmoreland County deputy coroner Sean Hribal said Lewis McIntyre was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Hribal said Mr. McIntyre was maneuvering around a tree stump that got caught in the mower and caused the tractor to roll. He died of multiple traumatic injuries.
Last year, 28 people were killed in farm-related accidents in Pennsylvania, according to statistics kept by Penn State University. Eight of those deaths were in tractor accidents.
Nationally 345 agricultural workers in crop and animal production were killed on the job last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In a ranking of industries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety ranked agriculture, forestry and fishing as the most hazardous industry in the country with a death rate of 27.2 per 100,000 workers. Transportation and warehousing was in second place with 13.3 deaths per 100,000, and construction was third with 9.9 deaths per 100,000.
Silos are part of the risk. Farmers know the stories of people who have been overcome by the methane gas that can build up even hours after loading a silo with silage. Still, it is easy to make the mistake of going inside to level out the load. One person in Pennsylvania was asphyxiated by silo gases last year.
The bags Mr. Frye uses reduce the risk because the product is open to the air as it is unloaded. When the bags expand with methane, he cuts a slit to let it out. Ryan Long, who recently graduated from Latrobe High School and is working as a farm hand for Mr. Frye, was taping those slits shut this past week after the bags had vented.
Mr. Frye bought a special bagging apparatus to pack the bags with feed and uses a skid loader to get the feed from the bags into his mixer.
His neighbor brought in an outside company that uses a new machine to make silage. It took them 18 hours to bring in 97 loads, with multiple trucks running back and forth while the corn was being harvested.
In the next week, Mr. Frye said he will use his neighbor's combine to harvest the corn that he will mix into the feed as cracked corn, kernels that are dried and stored with his soybeans at grain elevator. The company that owns the grain elevator keeps track of how much grain is sent in and then sends the same amount back.
Throughout the summer Mr. Frye has harvested his hayfields three times, creating giant round bales.
And he still has his soybean fields to harvest.
The soybeans will be ready after the leaves turn yellow and fall off the stalks. In the field closest to his house, the stalks are 3 feet high and loaded with beans.
Mr. Frye would classify them as good and not excellent, since there is so much that can still go wrong. A rain right before the harvest could cause the beans to absorb moisture that he doesn't want them to have.
He also wants a good frost to kill the weeds in the bean fields so they will not clog the combine.
An average harvest for soybeans is about 35 bushels an acre. This year, looking at his field, he is hoping for 50 bushels an acre. "But it could turn south quick," he said.