Apparently, a couple of farmers in Vermont were on to something. They experimented with a new method of preserving forage in the ‘moist state’ by strong compression in air-tight pits. All three report success and express enthusiastic confidence in the future of this new departure in farming. My guess is that they’d just about had it trying to keep cattle fed and healthy through the long New England winter.
In an agricultural paper dated February 13, 1881, T.H. Hoskins, M.D., reports the value of ensilage as discovered by three Vermont farmers who wanted to continue feeding their cattle a high-quality feed throughout the winter. The farmers – Gen Thomas of Montpelier, Gen Grout of Barton and Capt Morton of Essex – were the Mikeys of their time. They tried it and liked it. The report of their successful experiment was published in an agricultural paper and reproduced for all the people to read and review in Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book and Household Physician, published in 1894. The book is an encyclopedic wonder and history lesson, and was found in many homes.
Dr. Chase goes to great lengths to outline the benefits of corn silage (yes! back in the olden days they were feeding C-O-R-N to cattle!) beginning with a description of silos:
“‘Silo’ is French for pit, and ensilage is the French equivalent of the English word ‘pitting.’ It is applied in this case to the pitting of green forage in such a manner that is shall be preserved, by the exclusion, more or less perfect, of the air from the contents of the pit. This is effected by lining the bottom and sides of the pit with concrete or masonry (brick or stone, the surfaces of which are plastered with water-lime cement. The lines and right angles of such a pit must be straight and true, so that no hindrance shall be offered to the settling of its contents under the pressure which is applied to them after filling.”
The report continues with a description of just exactly what goes in this silo, which might come as a surprise to some who think cows have been forever eating, and should continue to eat, only fresh green grass:
“So far, green maize (yep… that’s corn), taken about the time when the grain is ‘in the milk’, has been used for ensiling almost exclusively; but all green forage may be equally well preserved in the same way. The preparation of ensilage is simply the cutting of the forage, by a suitable machine driven by horse or steam power (ok, today we’ve gone beyond 1 horse power in a big way) into small bits, not exceeding half an inch in length (the Penn State particle separator comes to mind). These are dropped into the pit or silo, and rapidly leveled and trod down by men or horses (BIG horses). This leveling or treading should be as exact and thorough as possible. The treading must be especially well done at the corners, and some silos are built with curved in place of square corners to facilitate this work.”
Considering the fact that this treatise on how to make silage was written over 100 years ago, Thomas, Barton and Morton weren’t too far off. Since the time of their rudimentary but workable silos, agriculture has made tremendous progress in the science of growing, preserving and storing forage for livestock. But silos are doing more than storing feed for livestock - they’re being used to store harvested crops for use in methane production.
A report in The Chemist and Druggist (England) in the winter of 1884 states that “Professor Thorne Rogers reports that ensilage increases the nutritive powers of green forage: that the process obviates waste, saves time and increases the productive power of the soil. The forage is made more digestible, and the farmer is enabled to get a double yearly crop.”
“Mr. F. Sutton confirms this view by comparing the relative value of hay and ensilage from a poor quality of grass. The hay was coarse and poor, destitute of sweet taste and odor, and contained a trace of ready-made sugar. Distilled with water, no essential oils were yielded, nor was there any flavor, save that of decaying grass.”
I don’t think farmers should have to defend the feeding of corn silage to cattle. Corn is a monocot, the sister of grass, and neither corn nor grass grows through the winter. Agricultural science researchers have gone to great lengths to perfect silage crops – from soil, seed, planting and harvest to ensiling and development of balanced diets for cattle and other species.
Over the next few months, I’m going to share more of Dr. Chase’s wisdom – he has ‘receipts’ for homemade remedies to cure ailments from scrofula and tetter to plain old-fashioned bronchitis. Might just need to pay attention to Dr. Chase.