In All Flesh Is Grass (Swallow Press, 2004),author Gene Logsdon explains why he believes pastoral farming is the solution for a stressed agricultural system, and shares some of the historically effective practices and new techniques from recent years. In this excerpt, which is from Chapter 20, “Making Hay and Silage,” Logsdon explains the differences between hay and silage, and also provides small-scale farmers and poultry producers a method for making silage from lawn mower clippings, molasses and a yard bag or container.
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Where early summer climate is so rainy that making that first cutting of hay on time is difficult, commercial dairymen resort to silage. Silage is green forage that is cut, wilted a little or a lot (a lot is better), chopped, and stored in a variety of ways to keep air out of it. Tall upright silos, once commonly seen on all farms, allowed the stored green grass to settle down by its weight so solidly that only a little spoilage occurred around the edges and on top. Then came sealed silos that kept the air out completely. Then came the much cheaper bunker and trench silos, where the silage was piled on the ground or in a trench and run over with tractors to pack it tight. Bunker and trench silos drew rats, and the livestock churned up mud in thaw weather. Concrete bunkers came into use, still not as satisfactory as upright silos but cheaper. A later storage method put the cut grass into huge plastic sacks that when filled look like enormous caterpillars lying on the ground. The silage was in this case not compressed because the plastic was supposed to keep out the air that would cause spoilage.
Now the most modern method is to make big round bales out of the cut and wilted grass and wrap each bale in plastic—all done mechanically. The forage is then referred to as balage and keeps very well, as long as the plastic wrapper is not punctured.
I have participated in all these methods personally, and I’d rather make hay. Balage really is making hay rather than silage, and I think it will become the prevalent way to provide forage other than pasture itself. It avoids most of the worry of bad weather ruining the hay. As long as winter or emergency feed is needed along with pastures, balage will be the preferred method of making it. Where hay is made to sell off the farm, standard baled hay will remain the choice because it is easier to transport.
When green silage ferments, it can give off a chlorinelike gas, especially in big enclosed upright silos. A whiff can kill you. I have elsewhere described my other reservations about silage. Mostly I think that hay or balage is better nutritionally for the animals.
Silage for Small-Scale Farmers and Poultry Producers
I would not have considered balage a practical possibility for small grass farmers or garden farmers had I not come across a curious article written by an Austrian, Rudolph Seiden, in the Autumn 1950 issue of the now-defunct Farm Quarterly. He was advocating silage not only for very small-scale farmers but also for poultry producers! I will quote a paragraph from his article, “Pasture for Poultry” and ask you, before you read my reaction below it, if it inspires in you the same thought that came to me when I first read it:
Poultry silage can be preserved from… young grass, or clover, to produce an easily digested protein feed that is rich in vitamin A and B. A simple method of preserving the grass is to cut it in one-fourth inch lengths; let it wilt to reduce the moisture content from around 80% to around 65%; then pack it into clean, air-tight barrels. Mixed with the chopped grass as it is put into each 50 gallon barrel are four gallons of molasses which have been diluted with 16 gallons of water. The molasses, rich in fermentable carbohydrates which green feeds lack, greatly improves the quality and palatability of the silage. The barrel lid, which must be somewhat smaller than the container’s opening, is pressed down into the grass-filled barrel with 300 to 400 pound weights. As the grass settles, more of it must be added to keep the barrel full and tightly packed. After settling a few days, an airtight lid, or a double layer of tarpaper, is put on top of the container which should then be stored for three months in a cellar or cool pit. When the silage barrel is opened, it will be found that the top layer will be slightly mouldy and should be discarded. The ciderlike smelling ensilage that remains may be fed at the rate of two to five pounds daily to each 100 laying hens and up to 12 pounds daily per 100 turkeys.
I don’t know about you, but my first thought was that Mr. Seiden was unwittingly suggesting a way to make something sane out of American lawn madness. We can turn our thirty million acres of lawns in this country into succulent meat, eggs, or milk. Instead of sending zillions of tons of lawn clippings to the landfill or the municipal compost yard, feed them to livestock. Farmers in or near every city could create a business out of it. The lawn mower chops the clippings into one-fourth-inch pieces. The clippings can be allowed to wilt a little on the yard and then be picked up by leaf and grass vacuum attachments on the lawn mower. In the plastic bags, the clippings could ferment in airtight safety. The suburban residents would bear all the cost of producing the feed and then pay the cattle feeder instead of the city trash collectors to take it off their hands. The lawn lover could buy the clippings back as meat at a discount for participating in the operation. It would be the first cattle-feeding venture in history that was profitable without a tax dodge or a subsidy.
My second thought was that making small amounts of silage is a lot like making sauerkraut, just as making good hay is a lot like drying herbs. The gardener already knows most of the skills and secrets involved.
For livestock, the molasses in Seiden’s silage would work nicely, but in balage it’s not necessary. A little grain would be better, I think, and certainly cheaper. If you don’t have barrels or don’t want to mess around with plastic bags, Seiden’s article included a photo of a man forking grass clippings out of a wheelbarrow into a round tank about six feet in diameter and about four feet tall—a miniature upright silo. Another man was arranging the grass clippings evenly over the surface of the tank and tramping them solid. I imagine that both of them periodically got on top of the silage and bounced around to get a good tight pack. I imagine further that when they had filled the little tank they covered it with something to make it more or less airtight. Then, in winter they would fork the silage out into the wheelbarrow and feed it to their chickens. What a wonderful garden farm idea. With thirty million acres in lawns, and the acreage growing by leaps and bounds, this is the kind of thinking that must take place unless we want to buy all our meat, milk, and eggs from Brazil, where our grain monopoly is moving to.
Want to learn more tips and tricks to pasture farming? Learn some tips to Pasture Farming With Alfalfa, Red and Ladino Clovers.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from All Flesh Is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming, by Gene Logsdon and published by Swallow Press, 2004. Buy this book from our store:All Flesh Is Grass.