MADISON, Wis. - Most people probably view it merely as feed. But silage - whether in piles or in bunker silos - can, and does, kill.
Keith Bolsen, an emeritus professor at Kansas State University, talked about the dangers of silage during the annual business conference of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW). Speaking at the Madison, Wis., event on March 18, Bolsen offered several real-life examples of silage mishaps.
He noted that Mac Rickels, a dairy nutritionist at Comanche, Texas, can be considered one of the lucky ones. In October of 2000, Rickels was standing just 20 feet away when 12 tons of feed came crashing off the silage face. He neither heard nor saw the silage avalanche that hit him.
Afterward, Rickels said he'd been in silage pits hundreds of times before, all without incident. That, he figured, lulled him into a false sense of security.
One of the less lucky people, according to Bolsen, was 63-year-old Kenneth Hettinger, Rebersburg, Pennsylvania. He died in 2007 after approximately three tons of silage trapped him.
Another incident that Bolsen related hints at the horror of being trapped in a silage pile. In January of 2014, Jason Leadingham was working in a bunker silo near Dexter, New Mexico, when 10 to 15 tons of corn silage came crashing down.
His body, Bolsen said, was not recovered until about two-and-a-half hours later. Leadingham was found with a silage sample bag near him.
"He was clutching silage in his hands and had silage in his mouth, which suggests that Jason struggled to survive in the final moments of his life," Bolsen said.
In March of 2010, near Tehran, Iran, college professor Ali Assadi-Alimouti and two herdsmen at a large dairy farm were in a bunker silo that held 8,000 tons of feed. As they were leaving the silo, approximately 10 tons of feed fell about 18 feet and onto them.
One person had stayed outside the bunker and was able to get other farm workers to help rescue the three men. Professor Assadi-Alimouti was hurt the worst, Bolsen related. He was trapped under the silage 20 minutes, suffered multiple broken bones, and was in a coma 30 hours in a nearby hospital.
One of the other men broke a leg and had respiratory problems from not getting enough oxygen for 10 minutes.
Sometimes it's not just the silage that injures or kills. Bolsen noted that near Woodbury, Tennessee, in 2013, a 19-year-old farm employee was killed when a wall of a bunker silo that was built of concrete blocks collapsed on him.
Bolsen also mentioned situations that did not result in injuries or deaths - but could have.
"This overfilled bunker silo was 45 miles from the dairy," Bolsen said, as he showed a slide of feed being removed on a dairy farm near Hillsboro, Texas.
"There would have been no one to call 9-1-1 if the employee had been trapped in the Payloader by an avalanche."
Silage safety suggestions
Bolsen offered several suggestions to make working in, on, or near silage pile and bunkers containing silage.
First, said Bolsen, "Always follow the 'buddy' rule. Never work near a bunker silo or drive-over pile alone.
"The buddy rule saves lives," he added. "Suffocation is a major concern and likely cause of death in a silage avalanche."
"A second safety rule," Bolsen said, "is to never allow people to stand near the feedout face. No exceptions."
Third, he suggested this rule of thumb: "Never stand closer to the feeding face than three times its height."
For example, if the silage face is 10 feet high, don't stand nearer than 30 feet. Likewise, if it's 20 feet tall, don't stand closer than 60 feet.
Bolsen's safety advice extends to when plastic, oxygen-barrier film, tires or anything else is being removed from the silage face. The silage face is the place avalanches often occur.
One of his warnings involved the buckets of front-end loaders. Standing or riding in one is dangerous by itself, but standing in one to inspect the silage face is even more hazardous, since feed - several tons of it - could fall any time and with no warning.
It's also a bad idea, said Bolsen, to park a car, truck, all-terrain vehicle or tractor near the face where silage has been removed. Tons of fallen silage can block doors and windows, trapping someone inside.
The silage specialist went on to urge the posting of warning signs around the edges of bunker silos and drive-over piles. The signs, he said, should say, "'Danger! Silage face might collapse!'"
In addition, Bolsen advised farmers to talk to their employees and family members about the dangers associated with silage piles and bunker silos.
He said, "Every farm, feedlot and dairy should have written silage safety protocols and procedures and should hold regularly scheduled meeting to discuss safety with its employees."
Bolsen offered this take home message.
"It's really not about shrink loss, feed conversion, cost of gain, or milk-over-feed cost. It's about sending everyone involved in the silage program home to their families safe every day. If a silage program is not safe, nothing else about it really matters in the end."