DURAND, Wis. – Safety has always been a priority at Weiss Family Farms Inc.; however during the current haylage season and with corn silage harvest on the horizon, taking precautions in the feed out area and encouraging open communication between all employees is more important than ever for the Weisses.
    “During harvest sometimes things go too fast,” Nathan Weiss said. “Having a plan and knowing how we can provide as much safety as possible during the crunch times of haylage and corn silage harvest is so important.  It is a dangerous, yet essential task to our farm.”
    Every year, Weiss Family Farms fill forage bunkers that are built with 16-foot walls for their 1,000-cow milking herd in Pepin County near Durand. “For us, it was important that we built our bunkers large enough so we wouldn’t have to overfill them,” Weiss said.
    While feed storage and subsequent feed out are vital parts of farm operations, the tasks are also highly dangerous.
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that every day, about 100 agriculture workers suffer a lost-work-time injury, and in 2017, the fatality rate of farmers and farm workers from a work-related-injury was a soaring 20.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
    “The feed storage areas are really important areas on the farm, but they can also be a pretty high hazard,” Megan Schossow said. “With bunkers, in particular, injuries are fairly common.”
    Schossow is the outreach director and center coordinator for the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.
    There are three areas of concern with bunkers and human safety: harvesting and building the pile, the defacing and feeding processes, and silo gas.
    Every farm collects and stores feed differently, but regardless of size or method, a hauling and unloading pattern should be established.
    “It’s a chaotic time,” Schossow said. “Find ways to make things more predictable.”
    At Weiss Family Farms, the harvest plan begins well before a tractor hits the field.  Weiss Family Farms look over their equipment for notable operational hazards and then also develops a plan for the incoming forage with the farm’s harvest team. Typically, the family has three to six dump trucks hauling feed, two people filling the bunker with pushing and packing tractors and once the bunker is full, approximately eight people help to cover the feed with plastic to seal the pile.
    “With each harvest being unique with different employees, different fields, and the use of different bunkers we need to communicate with our silage team to make sure that everyone understands and follows through the specific protocols of our farm,” Weiss said.
    During the harvest and storage process, Weiss Family Farms uses radios to stay in constant communication, everyone also wears reflective gear and keeps a safe space between pieces of equipment.
    The family knows what can happen when precautions are not taken.
    “Over the years, we have had accidents that could have been avoided with better preparations. Most of the time these accidents occurred because we were in too big of a hurry and fatigued,” Weiss said. “Everyone’s in a rush and it’s a traffic jam, but with the use of radios it really helps to always let people know where everyone is and any situations that are developing.”
    The crew uses vertical dump boxes, so those trucks deliver feed to the bunker and then the tractors push the feed onto the pile. They only fill to the 15-foot range of the bunker and leave a slight crown at the top to allow for water runoff. After the pile is made, sidewall plastic is used to cover the bunker.
    “We’ve invested in a special bunker wall plastic unroller to hook to our payloader so that the roll of plastic can be lifted up and the plastic rolls and falls down on both sides,” Weiss said. “It eliminates the need for people to be in an unsafe position on the sidewalls at that time.”
    While the timing of harvest is out of their control, Weiss Family Farms is aware of the dangers of chopping late into the night. It can cause negative effects on their crew’s health.  At night, people’s alertness and reaction time is low, which increases the chance of accidents on the field, road or bunker.
    “It’s harder to stay awake, and if it is dark outside, there’s just a better chance of falling off the bunker pile or having the chance of an equipment rollover,” Weiss said.
    To reduce the risk of a rollover, the safest tractors include a rollover bar and seatbelt. This machinery can also be backloaded to provide more stability, Schossow said.
     When building the pile, farmers should also consider how it will be fed out and take steps to mitigate the risk of injury during that process.  
    “When filling the bunker, pack it tight to prevent avalanches during feed out,” Schossow said. “The pile should be no higher than your defacer, and when unloading with a defacer, always go top, down. Overhangs can present a unique hazard as well.”
    Schossow said that feed bunkers should be built with a 3-to-1 rule of thumb; for every 1 foot of vertical height, there should be 3 feet of horizontal height to the pile. Also, when on the bunker whether during feed out or in covering it, never get any closer than three times the height away from the edge.
    “It can be funky to remember that, but really stay away from the edge because that’s where avalanches happen,” Schossow said. “The pile comes apart and comes down. We’ve seen that happen on piles as small as 10 feet, and there are still fatalities.”
    In using a defacer, a farmer and employees should not get any closer than three times the height of the bunker.
    “It’s really less about the exact measurements and more about the rule of thumbs,” Schossow said.
    Weiss agreed.
    “When removing spoilage, we reach it with a payloader or telehandler so we are not on the pile shoveling and at more risk if there is an avalanche,” he said. “Safety has always been our biggest priority while working on the top of the feed piles.”
    Weiss and one farm employee oversee the bunker management. They talk weekly about safety protocols and being able to get the job done efficiently and effectively. A few years ago, Weiss and his employee went through a bunker safety training for the employee to establish a baseline of good practices.
    How the bunker is structured and how the equipment is operated around that space are critical in preventing on-farm injuries or fatalities. Being aware of the presence of silo gas is also a good measure.
    “Silo gas is present in all kinds of feed storage areas,” Schossow said. “It can be immediately deadly, or people can develop chronic issues with small exposures. And, farmers can see it hanging out in plastic or on the surface of the pile.”
    Although not confined in bunkers, silo gas is most prevalent within the first 12-16 hours of building the pile.
    Farm incidents at the bunker are fairly common whether with equipment or because of an avalanche, and can be more serious than other on-farm related incidences, often falling into the same category as confined spaces.
    To be prepared for an accident, farmers should work with their local first responders to evaluate potential hazards on the property. They may also consider providing phone numbers and addresses for the first responders to keep on file in the case of an emergency.  
    Schossow suggested building an on-farm first aid kit, which may include a tourniquet, to help in an accident before professional personnel can arrive.  
    Above all, take precautions when harvesting and feeding out forages to keep everyone involved safe during the busiest time of the year.
    “Stop, think and act,” Schossow said. “We really hear time and time again that incidences happen when people are in a rush, tired and looking to save 10 seconds. The health and safety of the people on your farm is its most valuable aspect.”