by Phil Vogelzang
I recently found Gerald Bishop of the historic Bishop Dairy in upper Beaver Valley working on a recent Saturday morning. He was happy to talk, but seemed a bit distracted, since his main focus was keeping a careful eye on his various nephews and grandkids who were out driving a regular fleet of large trucks and tractors harvesting their first cutting of silage. If you haven’t noticed, the grass in Chimacum is green and lush – ideal for harvesting. See silage, or chopped grass, is the main crop of the 500 acre Bishop Dairy. Solar powered, organic grass that is. It’s what the Bishops feed their animals through the winter to keep milk production going – and to keep them alive. So we talked grass, silage and cows. Like so many other grass farms in Chimacum, this is an annual ritual at the Bishop place. And an important one for their milking herd of 140 head.
Hundreds of years ago, the challenge of cutting, raking and storing enough hay by hand to keep one’s cows alive through winter was enormous. Armies of men were required to cut and rake the hayfields with scythes and hand rakes, piling it in large stacks that would somehow resist rot in the winter rains. Slowly, with mechanized mowing and baling machines, the amount of forage a dairy farm like the Bishops could put up increased, allowing them to increase the number of milking cows. But storing traditional dried bales required drying out the grass to a moisture level of below 40%. A great deal of nutritional value was lost in this drying process, not to mention the dependence on the right combination of sun and heat at the right stage of growth to allow harvest. Many farmers remember all too well entire hay crops ruined by heavy unexpected summer rainstorms.
This evolution of efficiency continued through to the 1970’s, when farmers figured out how to further improve yields using a process called “ensilage”. The earliest forms of this idea started in Germany in the 19th century when farmers began to ferment animal feed in much the same way they fermented saurkraut. Slowly it was recognized that ensilage had the potential to dramatically improve harvest efficiency, for two reasons. First it was much less dependent on drying action of the sun, since the cut grass only had to be “wilted” to a moisture content of 50-60%. And secondly, by harvesting the grass earlier in the season with a greater moisture content, it retained much more nutritional value, especially when stored in an airtight container like saurkraut.
The Bishops “chop” silage with a machine that is a combination high speed lawn mower, vacuum cleaner and waring blender. It chops up the fresh green grass of June and turns it into just what is sounds like. Lawn mower clippings. Lots of it. This chopped grass is then trucked to the two large silage pits on the Bishop place on Egg and I Road that are dug into a small hillside. They keep the silage covered with a heavy airtight tarp and weight it down with old used truck tires. On the day I visited, Geralds nephew, Billy Bishop was out in the field, driving an enormous 4 wheel drive tractor which pulled a high speed chopper, and behind that, a large storage trailer rapidly filling up with chopped grass. Once the trailer was filled, one of the grandkids would pull up next to him with an empty dumptruck. Billy would dump the load into the truck using its large articulated arms.
Once full, the truck would head back to the farm and dump it into the silage trenches. This is where I found 16 year old Austin Bishop, driving his grandfathers John Deere tractor and packing down the lawn clippings into a smooth green bed. As the pit gets full, the Bishop boys will drive over the trench with the heavier dump trucks (filled with a load of clippings) which really pack the clippings or “chop” down, squeezing out all the air from the stuff. This is the important part because the fermentation process that the chop undergoes to become nutritious silage can only proceed in the absence or near absence of oxygen. As Gerald explains, if a single hole develops in the tarp that covers the compressed grass, a large area of oxygen driven mildew will spread around the leak. The tarp is weighted down with tires, and when needed is taken from the bottom.
I asked Gerald how many cuttings he was getting off his fields this year. He smiled and shook his head. Most normal years he was able to get the first cutting done by mid May. Thanks to this years rainy spring, his first cutting this year wasn’t until mid June. And the grass was over ripe. Too long in the stem and the seedheads too mature he explained. This results in a lower overall nutritional value of the silage. He pointed to a field with deep brown ruts in it. “We tried to harvest that one before the grass over ripened, but the equipment tore up the fields” he explained. It’s hard but you just have to wait till it’s dry enough to drive on the fields.
The Bishop family has been farming this land for five generations now. They’ve been through some tough times, but thanks to their partnership with Organic Valley, Gerald and the rest of the family have been able to survive. Their experience and skills clearly show in the amazing efficiency of their silage chopping operation. How long they will be able to continue this tradition isn’t clear. But what is clear is the determination and capability of Gerald, Ron, Billy and Javen Bishop in carrying on the tradition of their ancestors. Next time you see the Bishop family working the fields in Beaver Valley, consider how long they’ve been doing it and what a treasure they are to the Chimacum community. And remember when you buy Organic Valley dairy products you are helping support one of Chimacum’s oldest and most successful dairies.