Bigger Isn’t Better (continued…)

I was reading an interesting account of the history of silage and hay-making in an old farm book and learned some helpful facts for small-scale farmers.

1.  Hay was never baled before the 1940s, when the hay baler was invented.  Hay was cut and stacked in the field, then carted to the barns.  It was lifted into the barn lofts and stored above the animals.  The hay sufficient to feed one cow for one year would require 1600 square feet of storage space!!  That’s a 40’x40′ area…just for hay storage…just for one cow.   So, the old hay-handling method required huge barns to store winter feed.  Today, we can store a great quantity of hay in a very small area thanks to baling.  A single round bale holds at least 1500 lbs. of hay–enough for one cow for 50 days.  Four round bales, then, can last a winter.  Of course, setting the round bale out with the cows will lead to a lot of waste, but I’m simply showing how much storage space is saved by baling.

2.  Cold, wet regions couldn’t produce hay.  Cut hay would not dry and so farmers in England had to grow winter root crops (turnips, rutabagas, etc.) to feed to the cows in the winter.  What a pain!  So, in the 1870s, farmers in these places began to experiment with the storage of freshly green grasses, which we now call “silage”.  They cut their grass as we would cut for hay, but instead of letting it dry in the field, they immediately removed  it and stored it in large pits, packed it down tightly and covered it with soil so no air could enter in.  Then, the natural sugars in the grasses fermented and basically created a giant store of pickled grass.  The earth served the purpose of a jar or can and the greens fermented over about a month’s time.  Then, when winter set in and the gras stopped growing in the fields, the farmers could open one end of the pit and slowly draw out “silage” to feed the animals.  It was better than growing root crops for farmers who couldn’t store hay.

3.  Silage allows farmers to have more animals on less land.  The short-sightedness of profit-seeking professional farmers led them to conclude that silage would allow them to keep more animals on less land because they would be harvesting the grasses and bringing them to the cows.   It would also allow them to produce more fertilizer (manure) than before.  The problem with this genius idea was that (a) packing animals together led to the spread of diseases and (b) the increased manure in tighter areas led to further disease transmission.  Moreover, natural source of vitamins received from, oh, sunlight was denied to the animals and led to the need for supplementation.  Today, the world of concrete barns, animal shots, immunizations, supplements, etc., is all owed to this bright idea.  “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  Surprise, surprise.

4.  American farms adopted English silage practices in the 1880s.   Silage came to America as a more efficient way of preparing winter feed for animals and it could make their farms more “profitable”.  Remember, the hay baler was not invented until the 1940s–60 more years.  So, when the silage idea came about, American farmers gobbled it up.  “Wow!  We can build smaller barns and feed the animals fermented corn choppings instead of hay.”  So, American farmers began using practices that were invented in lands that couldn’t grow hay as a way to increase profits.  There was never any proof that silage was nutritionally superior to good ol’ hay.  It was simply a way to make more money by cramming animals into concrete barns and force-feeding them silage.   No need for pastures at all any more.

5.  The world wars created the big farms.  When World War II began, the government did three things to farm owners: 

  1. It sent all their able-bodied men (workers) to war.
  2. It required that the tractor manufacturers make war equipment instead.
  3. It demanded more food to send to the soldiers overseas.

This impossible combination of actions led to radical (and dopey) measures.  First, the government funded the development of the giant tractors and combines we are familiar with today.  These allowed farm owners to do all the work themselves.  When combined with the idea of silage-making, it turned the midwest into a giant cornfield.  The greatest profit could be made by running these mega-tractors over as much land as possible.   Second, when produce increased, the government did not allow prices to drop to what the supply should have allowed them to drop to.  This allowed these farm owners to rake in giant profits–contrary to the true checks and balances of free capitalism. 

Now, when the war ended and the soldiers returned home, they found their farm work stolen by mechanical monsters.  The farm owners didn’t say, “OK, war’s over!  Time to put these machines aside an bring all our workers back to the farm.”  No, they were very happy with their machines.

To see exactly how this developed,  I recommend this article in Popular Mechanics from 1949, when this whole new way of farming was developing.


In light of all that, small scale farmers in areas that can easily grow and bale hay (fescue, alfalfa, etc.) should be happy to do so.  The problems that led men to invest in silage don’t apply.  Hopefully, we’re not trying to squeeze money out of our farms and don’t need to condense animals into unhealthy living conditions for short-sighted profits.  We don’t live in cold, wet areas like England that can’t produce hay for the winter.  We have no need for silage.  We desire to share God’s gifts with our neighbors and friends rather than consolidate as much as possible to ourselves–or do we thank God for his generosity to us at the dinner table after a day of greedily gobbling up everything we can in our fields?  Strange contradiction.  We don’t live during a time of world war and our concern should turn away from production statistics to charity and brotherly love.  

Small scale farming, using man and animal power for the development of a fruitful and happy local community is not to be intimidated by the mega-farms that fail to speak much of the historical conditions that led to and followed from their rise in the 1940s.  Research, as I showed in a previous post, is showing today that, in the long run, the way of the Amish in America is more productive and better for human community.  On an Amish farm, a man and his sons work the fields with horse-drawn equipment, while another family works the fields next door.  The neighbors work together on the heavy jobs of barn-building and harvesting and share small-scale equipment.  Don’t be deceived by modern methods or lose confidence in the simplicity of the farmers who not for 60 years but for 6,000+ years lived from the fruits of the earth.

God, with a goal of bringing peace to the world, promised a happy day for men:

“He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”

Unfortunately, it appears that these men of peace will find no work in our day, for the fields don’t need plowshares or pruning hooks but giant machines.   I think something’s wrong with the modern picture, no?  I prefer to have a farm on which the plowshare and pruning fork may be found and God’s promise of peace and happy farming are fulfilled.

William Michael

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One Response to Bigger Isn’t Better (continued…)

  1. Paula says:

    History and daily meditation and practical advice all in one post. Thank you!

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