Riding on a Mean Cutting Machine

Contract corn harvesting
By Joseph A. Parzych

Glen Hurd of West Swanzey, N.H., cut 23 acres of corn on Alan Flagg's farm in Gill one day with a corn chopper. Hurd bought the Krone Big X 650 used. A new one is $450,000. Sitting high up in the glass-enclosed cab of the huge machine, Hurd beckoned me to climb up to sit in the jump seat next to him. The cab of the diesel-powered machine muffled the noise of the engine and chopper, making conversation possible. The flashing knives of the chopper decimated eight rows of cornstalks at a time, drew them up into the machine, chopped them into little pieces and blew them into a truck moving alongside, all at 4 mph.

Photo by Joseph A. Parzych

"Chopping and loading 7 to 8 tons takes about one and a half minutes," Hurd said. "It takes about three minutes to load a 10-wheeler with 10 to 14 tons." According to the clock in his cab, Hurd loaded both trucks in four minutes - and that included time lost when the chopper paused as a loaded truck drove off and another moved into position. This is a mean cutting machine.

In earlier times, corn chopping was backbreaking work done with a hand-held corn knife sporting a 2-foot handle. Choppers stood up a dozen stalks next to a single stalk left standing. The shocks were left to dry, and then loaded onto a wagon and drawn to a barn for storage or to a powered ensilage cutter equipped with a small conveyor that drew the cornstalks against a whirling cutter head. A blower blew the chopped corn up into a silo, hence the term "ensilage."

The appearance of corn binders created quite a stir. Here was a tractor-drawn machine that cut and bound cornstalks into bundles that farmhands brought by wagon to an ensilage cutter at the silo. Later, manufacturers developed corn choppers that blew ensilage into a truck. These were single or two-row, machines. The number of rows a chopper could cut increased until the big daddy of them all appeared in the eight-row Krone Big X 650.

Alfred Dunklee of South Vernon, Vt., owned the corn planted on land he rented from Alan and Shirley Flagg. Seven trucks kept up a steady relay of ensilage-laden trucks to the Dunklee farm. The farm keeps a six to 12-month supply of chopped corn on hand. Three thousand tons of it. Who eats it all? Cows. A thousand of them.

"We have about 500 milkers that we milk three times a day," Dunklee said. "We have four men working three shifts, milking 'round the clock. Milking hardly stops between shifts."

Where does all this corn grow? "We have 500 acres under cultivation. Some our own, and other land rented."

Hurd also chops grass for Dunklee and other farmers. The chopped grass, or haylage, is sometimes stored in silos, but more often is stored on the ground the same way as ensilage, also covered with a plastic film that is black on one side and white on the side exposed to the sun to keep the feed cool.

"With weather so unpredictable, it's hard to dry hay," Dunklee said. "We feed some hay, but not much."

Hurd, who also operates his Cornerstone Farm, cuts corn from the end of May to the beginning of October. What does he do the rest of the year? "We do custom farming, plowing, harrowing, planting and spreading manure. We don't spray or fertilize, except what fertilizer goes in the ground with seed corn."

Hurd has five John Deere tractors and two 10-wheel dump trucks. He usually works daylight hours. "Sometimes, to get caught up, we work late," Hurd said.

Ears of corn were chopped along with stalks. Ear corn adds considerable nutrition for cattle. A farmer who grew sweet corn to sell to supermarkets, chopped and sold the stalks as ensilage. I wondered if the buyers knew of the missing ear corn. On Flagg's farm a few ears fell to the ground during chopping. Migrating geese glean corn kernels from fallen ears as well as scattered ensilage to store energy for their long migration in the fall, so it didn't go to waste.

Farming is a business. In order for farmers like Dunklee to stay profitable, he needs to mechanize his farm. To buy a machine as costly as the Krone Big X to harvest his corn is not feasible. Old labor-intensive methods are too time-consuming, as well as too expensive. Hurd makes it profitable for himself and farmers like Dunklee to contract mechanized corn chopping. The job gets done quickly and efficiently before frost harms the corn, and it frees Dunklee from investing in a machine that would have limited use for him.

The author is a freelance writer based in Gill, Mass., and a longtime contributor to Farming.