Harvesting Corn in Southern Wisconsin

Contributed Article

Harvesting Corn in Southern Wisconsin
The Early Years
by Pat Browning

In this area of Wisconsin, most crops are raised to support livestock production or dairy herds in various forms. Corn products were harvested for grain, and for ensilage (we always just called it 'silage').

Silo Filling Time

On dairy farms back in the 30's and into the first half of the 40's, making of corn silage was done with horses pulling a corn binder producing tied bundles of fresh, sweet-smelling corn plants, nice green leaves with ear; the complete plant. A bundle weighed in the neighborhood of between 25 & 40 pounds, depending on high tall and how fruitful the corn was! Timing was everything in harvesting corn for this purpose. Firstly, you wanted the kernels fully formed on the cob, but not yet dented; we strove for what Dad called the "high milk" stage of the kernels. They were in a sort of a doughy stage. Also at this stage, the stalk and leaves were still very tender -- the pith of the stalk was sweet and tasty. I remember chewing on them many a day to satisfy my sweet tooth, as candy for everyday eating was hard to come by. The other element of timing was oftentimes out of man's control -- that was to beat the first killer frost. Green lucious leaves combined with a sweet juicy stalk combined to make the finest silage. In Southern Wisconsin, you could expect the first killer frost at mid-September. The objective, then was to be able to wrap up silo filling surely by the end of September -- still capturing most of the green and sweet qualities of the corn. And toward the end, farmers often had to supplement sugar and moisture by feeding molasses in along with silage at the silo filler station. Poorer farmers used water instead!

Harvest time was my favorite time of year and I can remember vividly those cool evenings in mid-to-late September, silo filling time. More often than not, Dad and I would come up out of the field with two hayrack loads of bundled corn and it would be milking time. Milking on time was always important -- particularly when income from the sale of milk was your sole livelihood. Thus, the two loads were left until we finished milking the cows. It would be well dark by this time. Dad never liked leaving green corn bundles lay on the hayrack over night. We would start the old tractor, a 1936 Model "A" John Deere, which was connected to the silo filler using a long belt, run the machine up to speed, and then feed those two loads of corn bundles into the filler, one half-atop the other. A silo filler chopped the bundled corn up and then acted as a blower to propel the chopped silage up into the silo through a blower pipe of 6 inches diameter. That old John Deere was started using gasoline, and after a short run time, (when its operating temperature reached 190 - 200 degrees) it's fuel was switched over from gasoline to distillate. And on distillate, Old Johnny would 'chirp' like the finest diesel in the world, and just 'crack into the load' being placed upon on it! I loved that sound, and it smelled great too! That, my friends, was "farm heaven" to me.

There was an evening such as the one described above when we were topping off a silo (filling the top) so I had to be up there to keep the silage from blocking the blower pipes. If the pipes ever clogged, there was hell to pay! The silos were 30 feet high, and I recall looking over the edge -- what a feeling! As Dad was pumping those bundles in, I recall a steady blast of fire; a nice light yellow flame with a reddish hew being belched out by Old Johnny. Its muffler would glow cherry-red!

On another occasion when we were "topping" a silo off, I heard the darndest clanging coming up the pipes combined with a litany of curse words coming from Dad. I could hear those words over the tractor's laboring exhaust! It turned out, Dad was feeding the filler using a three-tined pitch fork, and in one bundle, a tine went into an ear. When he pitched the bundle, the fork slipped out of his hands. As he tried to get to the trip bar on the filler, a board on the floor of the hayrack gave way, and down through it poor Dad went, skinned him up terrible, right up to the end of his hip, and, that day, the entire pitch fork became silage. He was hurting for a week. At this point, I have to tell you, I regret not keeping more in touch with my Dad, Le Roy. He slipped away from us during the night, back in the mid-seventies, due to a sudden heart attack. You never know the day or the hour!

Harvesting Ear Corn

While lots of Wisconsin's corn ended up in silos, substantial acreage ripened and was reaped in quest for those golden kernels! We called it our "ear corn." In the Early Years, this harvest started off much like that for silage. Corn binders pulled either by horses or tractors were employed to cut standing corn, laying bundles on the ground. The labor-intensive task followed to form these bundles into corn shocks made from thirty to forty bundles each. After gathering and stacking the next step was to place a tie around the shock. We used a rope with single pulley to draw the shock in, then the other person girded and tied the corn shock with binder twine, enabling removal of the rope and pulley for reuse. Many farmers had to watch their fields on Halloween night to keep busybodies from pushing them over.

As in the case of harvesting for silage, timing was of some importance for ear corn as well. While the grain was the prime objective in this harvest, it surely was not the sole objective. Dried corn fodder was a valued product on the dairy farm too. Thus, we always would strive to cut ear corn while its leaves were still green, but after the kernels were fully dented. Getting the green leaves into corn shocks would preserve those leaves as protein- containing food for cattle during the winter.

When silo filling time was over, Southern Wisconsin usually enjoyed a period of fairly dry and pleasant weather called "Indian Summer." During this time, those shocked corn bundles would become fully dried, and the ears also would have fine, firm golden kernels of rich corn. By the end of Indian Summer, normally during November, you could begin to expect snowfall, and the start of freezing temperatures almost every evening. This was usually the time when we set up the Corn Shredder. A shredder was to corn what the thresher was to oats and wheat. Its purpose was to separate ears of corn from the dried stalk, and to shred the stalk with its leaves, blowing the result we called "fodder" into the barn or into a stack outside. There was more danger here, however, in that the dried corn plants had to be "fed" into the throat of the shredder which consisted to rollers with "teeth" on them to draw the stalks through, separating the ears from the stalks. The operator carried a knife on one wrist, would cut the binder twine on the bundle, then feed the stalks into the rollers of the picking bed. If he were to reach too far, or hold onto the stalks too long, he was at risk of being drawn down into the picking bed. Once the ears were snapped off the stalks, they made their way over another set of rollers called the husking bed where remaining husks were removed from the ears. Some kernels were shelled off during the process, and those were collected in a separate pan under the husking bed of the shredder.

The corn fodder was especially useful in the dairy. It was usually served to the cattle in the evening and they quickly scarfed up on the dried green corn leaves. What remained was the dried pith or fiber of the corn stalk. This leftover was then placed in the gutters to absorb cow urine thus preventing those tails from becoming really nasty during those winter nights. Clean cow tails makes for much more pleasant milking times in the morning!

I can still remember the year 1946. I was almost ten. Two plagues hit our farm that year, first was a massive invasion of corn borers, and then just before silo filling time, Southern Wisconsin was hit, in August by a cyclone. Both our 30-foot high wooden silos were blown down, and dad had to get help to put them back up before we could think of filling. But the really disastrous manifestation was in the cornfields. The borers weakened the stalks, then the winds folded them over at these "weak points." With the silos back up at filling time, our attempts to operate the corn binder were futile. The feed chains wouldn't draw the corn plants into the binder's bundling throat. Neighbors with the newer field choppers were having similar difficulty. Any silage corn would have to be cut by hand. On that score, Dad had a small field, about five acres of silage corn in what used to be the Calf Pasture -- rich with droppings over the years. Many of those stalks grew 10 to 12 feet tall, with multiple ears, and stalk diameter well over an inch. That small field nearly filled one silo, which was the only silage we made that year. Harvesting the crop as ear corn would be an equally difficult task. Neither binders nor pickers worked because of stalk breakage. We had to pick this corn by hand -- a task that went on up until Christmas Time. Dad used a team of horses to pull the corn wagon which had a "bang board" on the left side. Horses will follow the row line on their own, so Dad could pick and toss the ears into the wagon against the bang board while giving the team appropriate commands of "Whoa," or "Giddup." When I got home from school, I would join my Dad to make one or two more rounds of the field before dark, this time picking two rows per round! He and I were both glad when that year's harvest was over.

It was either 1949 or 1950 when Dad bought his first corn picker. It was badly worn, but served fairly well and the price was right. It was a two row mounted machine, and we put it onto the 1937 "A" John Deere. It always started better than the '36 "A." This was a significant consideration for a tractor with a picker mounted on it. We did custom picking for other farmers in the local area. Custom picking often extended beyond Thanksgiving Time. The weather came into play big time. I recall a picking job that went into December 1950 (or 1951) on the Orlo Belk Farm north of Elkhorn, along US Highway 12 . Weather that year had been fairly mild. There had been plenty rain, and the ground was frozen only an inch or two deep. I was driving along in Orlo's cornfield one mid afternoon when suddenly the tractor broke through the frozen layer and went down. The tractor's belly was at ground level -- in cold mud! The rig was stuck really good! To go with that was the forecast of a deepfreeze blast of Arctic cold that night, with much colder weather to follow. Dad knew that if that tractor was froze down that night, it would remain there until Spring! And so he and I spent hours that night with building jacks, shovels and planks using the lights of our old '46 Oldsmobile, raising Old Johnny & picker up. Once raised, Dad backfilled the holes and placed double planking under the rear wheels. We then let the tractor down, and allowed the machine to stay there that night. The following day, we were able to drive out without incident; and "yes," it really did get colder!

The Early Years were indeed much different from now when it comes to harvesting and storing those golden kernels -- the grain of the corn plant. We harvested ears of corn, and they were stored in corn cribs, where the drying process continued. From that point, the animals to be fed would determine what processing would take place. For hogs, ears of corn might be fed directly to them, for cattle, the ears were ground with a hammermill, cob and all to provide some bulk. For chickens and ducks or geese, the corn is shelled and then ground, discarding the cob entirely as part of the animal food. And then, of course, there was many other uses for the cobs, some real and some folklore.

There are lots of memories I have with Dad, and someday I would hope to share more of them with you. Most of those memories, however, are of work things -- that's the way life is on the farm. Many of them are tales of hardship and strife. All of the really exciting things to me during those days involved driving either of Dad's two John Deere "A" tractors, one a '36, the other a '37. Today, we are doing "farmette" farming with two John Deeres, one a 1941 "A" and the other a 1942 "H" -- both prewar tractors. I only wish Dad could have afforded a later model John Deere, but times were hard meaning money was short. Back then, folks wisely avoided unnecessary use of credit to avoid losing the entire farm. The process of using credit hasn't changed, only our perception of "what credit will do for you" has. We often tend to look only at the rosy side of life when it comes to use of credit in our lives today! Those were the days! (e-mail: [email protected]).

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