By Ruthie Bolsen and Dr Keith Bolsen,

Keith Bolsen & Associates, Austin, Texas

Silage avalanches are real and there is no way to predict when and where they will occur.

It only takes a fraction of a second for part of a silage feedout face to silently break off and fall. The result can be deadly for anyone located beneath it.

Recently there have been several avalanche fatalities in the United States. The victims include an 11-year old boy, a 30-year old truck driver, and a 63-year old employee.

In another case, the 53-year old owner-operator of a Nebraska feedlot died after he was buried by a large silage pile that fell in an open silage pit.

We have been working the past 11 years with beef and dairy producers to help them implement safe, efficient, and profitable silage programmes. In that time we have heard many stories of fatalities, serious injuries and near misses involving silage avalanches in the United Sates and other countries.

One of the most common reasons for bunker and pile accidents is the size of the stack and the packing density. Many are just too big to ever be safe for the crew filling the bunker or making the pile and for those who feed it out.

Higher crop yields and/or growing herd sizes require more harvested acres, and this creates the need to store more silage. Unless the farm or feedlot adds new bunkers, the footprint for drive-over piles is enlarged or packing density is increased significantly. In this case, there is nowhere for additional silage to go but up, and as it climbs higher, so does the risk of an avalanche tragedy.

It is not uncommon for feedlots and large dairies to have bunkers and piles with silage faces that are six to eight metres tall or taller. Common sense tells us that a seven metre tall silage face is far more dangerous than one that is only three to four metres tall.

We cannot stop all avalanches from happening, and they are impossible to predict … but we can prevent people from being under them.

Every farm, feedlot, and dairy should have safety policies and procedures for their silage program, and they should schedule regular meetings with all their employees to discuss safety.

Here are guidelines that can decrease the chance of having a serious accident caused by a silage avalanche.

  • Bunker silos and drive-over piles should never be filled higher than the unloading equipment can safely reach. Typically, a large unloader can reach a height of 3.0-3.5m (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.
  • 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. No exceptions! 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. No exceptions! ·
  • 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 of should be fenced and a sign posted, ‘Danger: Do Not Enter. Authorized Personnel Only’.

The number one priority is to send all employees home safe. If a silage program is not safe, then nothing else about it really matters at the end of the day.

For more information, contact Ruthie Bolsen email:

Keith Bolsen is professor emeritus of cattle nutrition at Kansas State University. Keith Bolsen & Associates providessilage managementtechnical support for beef and dairy producer clients of Connor Marketing, Inc.

(article supplied by New Zealand Ag Contractor)