Livestock producers need to take extra care when creating and maintaining stored silage piles to not only ensure they produce quality animal feed but also to lessen the risk of injury or even death from suffocation caused by an accidental silage avalanche.

Creating safe and nutritional silage piles starts with making sure the height is never higher than what your loading or unloading equipment can safely reach, which is typically 12-14 feet above the silage floor, said Rory Lewandowski, an Ohio State University Extension agriculture and natural resources educator.

While that may sound intuitive, Lewandowski said, numerous silage avalanches have occurred nationwide in recent years that have resulted in several deaths, according to data compiled by Ruthie and Keith Bolsen, nationally known silage safety experts.

“The biggest concern is that we can have these silage avalanches where silage will break off the face of the pile that you are drawing feed from, burying anyone beneath it,” he said. “These avalanches or pileups can occur in a second, creating a silent burial for anything that happens to be near, resulting in injury or death.”

OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

Maintaining silage piles is also key to preventing feed spoilage or silage quality degradation, Lewandowski said. Once silage is exposed to air, its quality begins to decline, he said.

“Yeast begins to grow in the presence of oxygen and those yeast metabolize the lactic acid that was formed during silage fermentation,” he said. “As yeast metabolizes the lactic acid, silage pH begins to increase and this allows fungi and bacteria to grow, which results in silage quality degradation.”

To better ensure nutritional silage, the goal should be to create sound silage piles and remove an adequate amount of silage each day from the bunker so that the face of the silage remains fresh and silage quality is maintained, Lewandowski said.

“Producers should use equipment that allows for the silage pile to maintain a smooth face to try to minimize the penetration of air into the new silo face as silage is removed,” he said. “Silage face shavers, defacers and silage rakes are good tools to use for this purpose.”

Other safety and management tips to follow when creating or maintaining silage piles include:

  • Never work in or near a bunker or pile alone. Suffocation is a major concern in the event of a silage avalanche and the minutes saved in a rescue attempt when not working alone could mean the difference between life and death.
  • Use proper removal and unloading techniques. Never dig the bucket of a loader into the bottom of the silage. Do not undercut the silage face. Shave the silage from the top down on the silage face and maintain a smooth silage face.
  • When collecting a silage sample for quality analysis, do not sample from the silage face. Collect silage in a loader bucket and sample from that loader bucket after it has been moved a safe distance from the silage face.
  • Post signs indicating pileup or suffocation warnings around the perimeter of bunkers and piles.

“And remember, never stand closer to the silage face than three times its height,” Lewandowski said. “When a silage avalanche occurs, the silage falls down and runs out away from the silage face, potentially leaving you buried alive in seconds.

“Silage safety is important in all seasons but needs to be stressed during winter months when cold working conditions may lessen awareness of potential hazards or lead to the temptation to take shortcuts that are not safe.”