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Are you prepared for silage season?

Silage making time is a high-risk time, due to the movement of machinery, persons and grass loads.

However, safety risks can be minimised by good planning and active consultation between farmers and contractor, writes John McNamara, Teagasc Health and Safety Specialist.

Silage making happens throughout the summer period with both pit silage and wrapped bales being made. In Ireland, we are fortunate to have a modern silage making gear while the weather of late is favourable for this job. The current COVID-19 emergency means that extra health and safety precautions are necessary.

This article highlights key areas needing attention to avoid injuries around the silage making season. The majority of fatal accidents on farms occur due to people getting struck or crushed by a farm vehicle, in or around a farmyard.

Older farmers and children are particularly at risk, so communicating with these vulnerable groups about the risks is crucial to gain heightened safety awareness. 

Planning for silage

Safety at silage making requires a lot of organisation and co-operation between contractors and farmers. Contractors need to be able to produce evidence of having adequate insurance cover and that a safety statement has been prepared.

Equally, farmers need to ensure that a risk assessment is conducted. If the work is considered unsafe by either party, the unsafe action should be stopped and followed by a discussion to resolve the matter.

Farmyards need to be free of obstructions to allow the free flow of vehicle and well-maintained roadways will allow machinery to travel safely.

Good visibility is necessary at all access points to public roadways. Warning signs and bollards should be used only on road verges, however, it is not permitted to put them on the metalled road surface.

Examine routes of silage vehicles for overhead cables. Look out in particular for ESB poles that may have sagged and for overhead cables around the farmyard where trailers are tipping and machines are going high on pits.

Notify ESB Networks immediately of any safety issues with the supply network. Further advice is available here.

Silage walls need to be checked for integrity in advance of silage making. Both silage and industrial loaders put substantial pressure on silage pit walls. When grass is wet the load increases and drainage pipes need to be used.

Care needs to be taken not to overfill silage pits. Silage should slope at 45 degrees from the height of the wall, but a level area is needed at the centre of the pit of at least three times the loader width. Sighting rails fitted to walls as these indicate the location of the wall the loader driver.

Children need to be well supervised at all times during silage making. The farmyard should be a ‘no go area’ for children without supervision. Provide a ‘safe play area’ as an alternative. Do not ask contractors to give a child a ‘spin’ on their tractors and machines.

Never go under the silage polythene when in place to cover silage. Fermentation of silage takes place rapidly and oxygen depletion occurs, so asphyxiation could occur.

Baled silage

Baled silage is made on about two-thirds of farms and accounts for about one-third of all silage made. It is the main system on both beef and smaller farms. It is also used as a secondary system to preserve surplus grass on larger farms.

In a 3-year period, big bales were associated with 15% of farm workplace deaths. Fifty per cent arose due to a fall from height or a rollover. A half-tonne bale falling from a height could exert a force of 3 tonnes on impact.

A further 50% of fatal accidents are associated with being crushed between tractor and bale, so never get into a trap zone. When contractors are stacking silage bales, don’t stack higher than the capacity of the farm silage loader.

Repairs at silage time

Blockages and breakdowns of machinery lead to high injury risk. We are fortunate, by and large, to have modern silage equipment in Ireland, with modern devices like blockage reversing mechanisms.

However, taking the time to apply key safety principles when a break-down occurs is crucial. For instance, turn off the PTO and stop the engine if a machine has to be unblocked manually.

Teagasc recently updated its Farm Workshop Safety Booklet outlining key safety methods. Use adequate equipment to prevent injury when repairing equipment. e.g. use of axle stands when changing a tyre.

When pumping tyres, make sure a compressor is properly maintained, fitted with a pressure relief valve and an accurate pressure gauge is available. It is crucial that the airline hose between the clip-on chuck and the pressure gauge/control is long enough to allow the operator to stand outside the likely trajectory of any explosion during inflation.

Silage effluent and slurry

Slurry spreading follows-on rapidly after silage making.  To prevent deaths due to slurry gas poisoning, ventilate by always picking a windy day, open all doors and outlets and keep all persons away when agitating and handling slurry.

Silage effluent is often diverted into slurry tanks to prevent water pollution. Effluent increases the level of toxic hydrogen sulphide in slurry gas due to acidification.

Additionally, the warm summer conditions allow rapid fermentation of slurry. Similarly, the key precautions apply of ventilating by choosing wind conditions and opening all vents along with evacuating all sheds of both stock and people.


Farmers and contractors should jointly consider how to implement public health guidance on COVID-19 before silage or slurry spreading work commences.

Further comprehensive information on all aspects of Farm Health and Safety are available on the HSA and Teagasc websites.

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