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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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