Published on Mon, 01/18/2016 - 11:42am

Silostop Oxygen Barrier Film Helps Producers
Achieve Safety, Efficiency, and Profitability

As you plan your silage program for 2016, keep in mind that few tasks on the farm present as many opportunities for injury or fatality as working in or around bunker silos and drive-over piles. Silage-related tragedies have no age boundary as family members, employees, and bystanders of all ages have been injured or killed during harvest and feedout. The first step in preventing a serious accident in any silage program is to make sure everyone on your team is aware of the possible dangers. You could be saving a life.

There have been several silage avalanche fatalities in the U.S. the past few years. In a split second, tons of silage can silently fall from the feedout face, trapping people and machinery underneath. Dr. Keith Bolsen, who is a professor emeritus at Kansas State University, and his wife, Ruthie, have been working for over a decade with beef and dairy producers to help them implement safe, efficient, and profitable silage programs.

The Bolsens have heard many stories of near misses or serious injuries involving a silage avalanche. One of Dr. Bolsen’s PhD students had a near miss on a dairy in Colorado, and avalanches in California and Texas seriously injured two of his friends, who are dairy nutritionists.

Ruthie says the worst is hearing of employees, owners, husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and children who die tragically due to avalanches. She cites an 11-year-old boy in New Hampshire, a 19-year-old family member in New York, a 30-year-old truck driver in Idaho, a 54-year-old employee in Connecticut, and a 53-year-old owner in Nebraska who have all lost their lives due to a silage avalanche recently. Ruthie is quick to point out that the next silage avalanche-related tragedy is out there, and it does not have to happen.

Dr. Bolsen believes that the most common cause of bunker and pile accidents is size; many are just too big to ever be safe for the crew filling the bunker or making the pile and the one feeding it out. Higher crop yields and/or growing herd sizes, which require more harvested acres of forage, mean more silage needs to be stored. But unless new bunkers are added, the footprint for drive-over piles is enlarged, or packing density is increased significantly, there is nowhere for additional silage to go but up. As it climbs higher, so does the risk of a silage avalanche. It is not uncommon for feedlots and large dairies to have bunkers and piles with silage faces that are 18-24 feet tall, or even taller. Certainly, these silage faces are far more dangerous that those that are only 10-12 feet tall.

It is not possible to eliminate silage avalanches, but there are steps producers can take to prevent people from being injured or killed. The Bolsens urge every farm, feedlot, and dairy to have written safety policies and procedures for their silage program and to schedule regular meetings with all employees to discuss safety.

Here are some guidelines they recommend that can decrease the chance of a serious accident or injury due to silage avalanche:

• Bunker silos and drive-over piles should not be filled higher than the unloading equipment can reach safely; typically a large unloader can reach a height
of 12 to 14 feet.

• Use caution when removing plastic or oxygen-barrier film, tires, tire sidewalls, or gravel bags near the edge of the feedout face.

• Do not “pitch” spoiled silage. It is simply too dangerous to remove surface spoilage from the top
of many bunkers and piles.

• Use proper unloading technique, which includes shaving silage down the feedout face.

• Never “dig” the bucket into the bottom of the silage. Undercutting creates an overhang of silage that can loosen and tumble to the floor. This is a situation that is quite common when the unloader bucket cannot reach the top of an over-filled bunker or pile.

• Never drive the unloader parallel to and in close proximity of the feedout face in an over-filled bunker or pile.

• When sampling silage, take samples from a front-end loader bucket after it is moved to a safe distance from the feedout face.

• Never ride in a front-end loader bucket.

• Never park vehicles or equipment near the
feedout face.

• Never allow people to approach the feedout face.
A rule-of-thumb is never stand closer to the silage face than three times its height.

• Avoid being complacent. Always pay attention to your surroundings and never think that an avalanche cannot happen. 

• Follow the “buddy rule” and never work in or near a bunker or pile alone.

• A warning sign, ‘Danger! Silage Face Might Collapse’, should be posted around the  perimeter of bunker silos and drive-over piles.

• If a bunker silo or drive-over pile is in a remote area on the farm, then the perimeter should be fenced and a sign posted, ‘Danger: Do Not Enter. Authorized Personnel Only’.

Most tragically for Keith and Ruthie was the loss of Jason Edward Leadingham, a young father who died on January 13, 2014 in New Mexico when 10-15 tons of silage avalanched onto him. Jason was a haul-back driver and working alone in his employer’s bunker silo when the collapse occurred, and his body was not recovered from the silage until about 2½ hours later.

A 17-minute Silage Safety video was produced in loving memory of Jason, and his mother and family hope that Jason’s death will encourage every farm, dairy, and feedlot to make safety their number one silage priority. Contact Ruthie Bolsen at to obtain a copy of the video.

The National Agriculture Statistics Service reported that 164.3 million tons of silage was produced in 2014. It is estimated that about 82 to 84% of the silage is stored in bunker silos and drive-over piles. Bunkers and piles, by design, allow a high percentage of the ensiled forage to be exposed to the environment. For decades, a sheet of conventional plastic, which is typically weighted with discarded car or truck tires or tire sidewalls, has been the common method used to protect silage near the surface of a bunker or pile. The protection provided is highly variable, and visible surface spoilage occurs to some degree in virtually all sealed bunkers and piles. Research has shown that dry matter (DM) loss in the original outer 3 feet can exceed 25 to 30 percent in a typically sealed bunker or pile.

Dr. Bolsen says visible surface-spoiled silage can accumulate to a depth of 4 to 8 inches or more in a poorly sealed bunker or pile. Research has shown that this spoilage has a negative nutritional value, and if fed to beef or dairy cattle, can result in significantly lower DM intake and dramatically lower fiber digestibility.

What does visible surface spoilage have to do with silage safety? Dr. Bolsen reminds us that it is simply too dangerous to physically remove or “pitch” surface spoilage from the top of most bunker silos and drive-over piles. There have been documented fatalities of individuals who were pitching spoilage from over-filled bunkers and piles. Therefore, an effective seal is essential if surface spoilage is going to be eliminated, and this could save a life. Bolsen recommends that producers use a layer of Silostop Oxygen Barrier Film under a layer of conventional white-on-black plastic when sealing the surface of bunkers and piles.

When used properly in combination with the safety guidelines above, Silostop’s complete silage protection system can help producers achieve a safe, efficient, and profitable silage program.

Silostop offers the Silomat, an effective weighting system above the silage feedout face. The Silomat prevents air entering under the front of the protective sheet, and it keeps the operator away from the silage face. Silomat is woven from high density HDPE and filled with crushed sandstone, and it has a life expectancy of 7-10 years. It has built-in UV protection and is suitable for bunker silos, clamps, and drive-over piles.

In a bunker silo, Silostop Oxygen Barrier Wall Film and Silostop Orange Oxygen Barrier Film prevent visible surface spoilage, which in turn can eliminate the need to pitch. Silostop Wall Film ensures the ultimate seal and maximum silage protection when using Silostop Oxygen Barrier Film. Silostop Wall Film is heavier duty than Silostop Orange Oxygen Barrier Film to allow for effective application on rough bunker wall surfaces, but it is still light and very strong, making it easy to handle and apply. By using Silostop Wall Film, visible surface spoilage on the sides and shoulders is virtually eliminated.

Producers using Silostop Orange Oxygen Barrier Film to seal bunkers and piles save $0.75 to $4 per ton of forage ensiled compared to using conventional black or white-on-black PE plastic.