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Avalanches, entanglements, tractor rollovers and other accidents: The scary side of silage

Progressive Dairy Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 20 August 2019
silage safety meeting

“Veterinarian dies after being trapped in collapsed silage pile.”

“18-year-old dies in pack tractor rollover accident in a bunker silo.”

“Teenage farm worker dies in silage defacer entanglement.”

Each of these real-life headlines tells a tragic story in just a few words: lives lost as a result of an on-farm silage-related incident. But all too often, we choose to read the headline of the tragedy instead of the one about prevention.

Dr. Keith Bolsen, Kansas State University professor emeritus, is known worldwide as the “The Silageman,” having devoted his 49-year career to research and education on the topic of silage production and management. However, these days, he feels called to share a different message stemming from his life’s work.

“We have two major problems in our global silage industry today. … Shrink loss is too high, but our biggest problem is safety,” Bolsen says. “Too many silage programs are not safe.”

Bolsen is a silage accident survivor himself, having lost parts of three fingers in a silage blower early on in his career at K-State, and he knows firsthand of the close calls so many farmers and employees have walked away from unscathed. Unfortunately, it’s the incidents when someone doesn’t walk away that stick in his mind because he knows those lives were lost in vain.

“Every silage-related accident could have been prevented,” Bolsen asserts. For this reason, he and his wife, Ruthie, founded the Keith Bolsen Silage Safety Foundation in October 2017.

“Silage-related tragedies have no age boundary. Family members, employees and bystanders of all ages have been injured or killed during silage harvest and feedout,” Bolsen says. “The foundation’s goal is for everyone involved in a silage program on farms, dairies, feedlots and other livestock operations to return home to his or her family safe every day.”

Silage survivors

By sharing his heartfelt message of silage safety, Bolsen has encouraged accident survivors to tell their own stories, in hopes that others will feel compelled to take actions to prevent injury – or worse – in their own silage program. The following testimonials are published on the foundation’s website:

Ted’s story

In the fall of 2000, Ted Gramm’s family cattle operation in west-central Minnesota used a custom operator for the first time and over-filled a bunker silo with corn silage. The feed-out face was 15 to 16 feet high. Ted was doing chores and calving cows in the late afternoon on a Sunday in early March 2001. As he recalls, “It hadn’t been a good day; it was gloomy, I didn’t get to go to church, and I was feeling down about a lot of things. My family was in the house and knew that I probably wouldn’t make it home for supper.”

When Ted was ready to feed silage, he noticed that a tire had come down off the pile. He walked up and grabbed the tire, and that was the last thing he knew … the avalanche hit him. In Ted’s words, “Only by the powers from above did my brother drive in the yard, see me get buried and knew where I was. He managed to find me and pull me out.”

Ted suffered displaced ankles and had surgeries on both knees. He continued, “These types of things are real, they happen. During the minute or so that I was buried, I could see my kids around the table. A lot of things flashed through my mind.”

Ted fully recovered from his injuries and is a sales supervisor for Purina in Hancock, Minnesota.

Doug’s story

The accident happened on June 21, 1976, on the family farm in Waverly, Minnesota, when Doug Sawatzke was 13 years old. The apron had broken on the silage wagon, and Doug took it upon himself to pull the wagon up to the tower silo and fork out the forage. It was an old Decker box wagon with two rows of front beaters, and no safety mechanism to stop the machine. When the wagon was nearly empty, Doug and Jim Hessel, a friend his age, were cleaning up the floor with the beaters and cross apron still running. Doug’s fork got entangled in the beaters, and when he grabbed for it, he ended up in the beaters with the fork. Jim saved Doug’s life by jumping over the side of the wagon and turning off the PTO. Doug remembers his dad coming from the field and holding him until the ambulance arrived. Doug’s injuries included a broken femur and multiple lacerations. He spent five weeks in traction and three months in a body cast. Doug said, “It was the only time that I ever saw my dad cry, and I am lucky that I did not get conveyed into the silo blower.”

In his testimony, Doug said, “It was my decision to pull the wagon up to the silo, and my dad had no knowledge that I was doing that. He was out in the field chopping. My dad was not responsible for my accident.”

Doug now lives in Annandale, Minnesota, and is a sales nutritionist for Munson Lakes Nutrition.

How to prevent silage accidents

Those affected by a silage-related incident will never forget the impact a pile of silage or piece of equipment had on their lives, but negative outcomes can be prevented.

“For example, the bottom line on preventing serious injuries and fatalities from a silage avalanche is this: Avoid over-filling bunker silos and filling drive-over piles to excessive heights, and avoid working or standing close to a feedout face,” Bolsen says. “But above all else, avoid being complacent and thinking it can’t happen to you.”

It’s the Bolsens’ mission to build awareness through the Keith Bolsen Silage Safety Foundation. The non-profit corporation, funded through donations and gifts, supplies silage safety resources free of charge to anyone who requests them. This includes “Silage Safety 101” handbooks in English and Spanish, PowerPoints and videos. Keith has given presentations on silage safety in 15 states, and the foundation has distributed over 9,000 handbooks. This handbook presents eight common hazards encountered in managing bunker silos and drive-over piles, and detailed accounts of case study accidents involving each hazard. Guidelines for the way each hazard can be eliminated, reduced or controlled are outlined and discussed.

The Bolsens invite others to share their own stories of silage safety with them, whether it be personal tragedy, a near-miss or survival. Learn more about the Keith Bolsen Silage Safety Foundation at its website.  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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PHOTO: The Keith Bolsen Silage Safety Foundation’s first on-farm silage safety workshop was held at Table Rock Farm in Castile, New York, on Nov. 10, 2017, at the invitation of Meghan Hauser (left) and her father, Willard DeGolyer (fifth from right). Keith Bolsen is standing in the center. Photo provided by Keith Bolsen.

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