The American farm in the late 1800s needed a place to store winter feed, and the upright silo provided a solution
Filling the silo: from a turn-of-the-century postcard.
In the late 1800s, livestock farmers – especially dairymen – recognized the need to stockpile and preserve high quality winter feed.
While the ensilage process of chopping and packing most of the plant was already known, it had previously been pitched into and packed in pits or bunkers. There, the feed underwent a process of fermentation and sweetening.
Then, the idea sprouted to build small rectangular or round structures to contain silage (or ensilage) vertically near the site where it would be fed. The upright silos generally packed more uniformly, and minimized surface exposure that lead to spoilage. The square or rectangular models, though, soon fell out of favor, says Joe Becker, Hartland, Wis. Joe and his wife encountered accounts of three square-store silos in the process of doing research for another project.
"These were 1890s vintage, and university literature of the time said there was too much spoilage in the square types," he says. "It didn't pack in the corners.
"The first silos I know about in our area were built in the late 1880s," he says. "The smallest poured cement silo I've seen was eight feet in diameter, and was built in the early part of this century."
Joe, a retired dairy farmer, says that silo diameter was determined by herd size. Height was determined by how high farmers could blow or elevate silage with equipment available at that time.
"The first stone silos were huge," he says. "Sometimes the silage had to be forked twice to reach the chute."
By the early 1900s, round stave silos became popular, usually made from tamarack, Douglas fir, pine, spruce, hemlock and cedar, bound with iron rings. Glazed tile blocks were also occasionally used for silo walls.
Building the silo was one thing: filling it was quite another.
"Silo filling was very hard work," Joe recalls. "Bundles of green corn stalks with ears on were heavy. If corn was ensiled at the right stage, it was great feed. Sometimes an early frost would dry the corn down too much, and water would be added at the silo machine to ensure better packing."
After the entire crop was cut and hauled in, it was fed into a machine (which included a blower), which chopped and conveyed it to the silo. Although silo machines date to the 1890s, equipment was changed and improved constantly over the years, powered first by hand and tread-power, later steam and gas. The first big labor-saving device was the binder with the bundle loader. Next – in the 1940s – came the field chopper and self-unloading wagons. The silo unloader came into the picture at about the same time.
The binder could be adjusted to make bundles smaller or larger. Someone would usually stand by the silo machine to help feed stalks evenly, and maybe pick out a few perfect ears for seed. (This was in the days of open-pollinated corn, long before the days of hybrids.) If the silo machine was fed too fast, it would plug up and kill the power source. Cleaning out the plugged pipes was no easy under-taking.
"As a kid, I was assigned the job of tending the distributor pipes during silo filling," Joe recalls. "They were hooked together with chains and could be guided to any place in the silo. As a small boy, I had a hard time reaching to unhook a pipe without plugging it up."
Once filled, the silo loomed large in off-season farm operations.
"Unloading silage to feed cattle was a daily chore," Joe recalls. "We had to climb up a ladder or built-in step irons on the inside of the chute of the silo, then pitch it into the chute, which ran down into the silo room attached to the barn.
"During the winter, the silage often froze, so we had to take a pick along," he says. "Some people would leave chunks on the walls, which ended up above them as they worked later. This was dangerous, since they could come loose and fall on the man below. I know of big chunks killing persons."
The silo remains an enduring symbol of the American farm. But the reality is that the early silo is an increasingly rare sight, falling victim to modern construction techniques and encroaching development. Many others have simply collapsed under the weight of years.
The 1950s-era photo of the leaning silo is an example. That silo stood at Summerfield Farm, Independence, Va., now owned by Palmer and Sidney Rose Fant. The Fants weren't responsible for the silo's destruction, though. In fact, since buying the farm from other family members in 1967, they've made preservation efforts on several farm buildings and structures. This year, they were among five farm-family winners in the annual "Barn Again!" contest.
"The silo was attached to the barn which received the 'Barn Again!' award," Sidney Rose explains. "As a child, in the forties, I remember this when it was being filled. The chopper and blower were powered by a '38 Chevrolet engine. The side of the silo attached to the barn, and had a series of sections or doors which slid into a slot to cover the opening. It also had metal rungs which served as the ladder to climb to the top.
"When feeding time came, the silage was shoveled out through these doors into a trough which ran through the barn. As the silage was fed out and lowered into the silo, a door was removed.
"The silo was an early addition to the farm.
"This farm has been in my family since 1889," she says. "My neighbor, who is 83, says the silo was older than he is."
Gerald and Wayne Feldmeier, brothers from near Rushford and Houston, Minn., were also recognized in the "Barn Again!" program this year. In addition to updating their 1890s bam, the Feldmeiers made improvements to many other structures there, including a tile block silo dating to the 1920s.
"It has very heavy wooden doors," Gerald says. "The silo is about 30 feet high, and has a seven-foot pit in it, and you need a ladder to get in and out of it. The roof is made of cement, and has old horseshoes which were pushed into the cement before it cured. This is the only thing you have to hold on to while on top."
The horseshoes weren't there just for good luck.
"Before we installed a permanent silo pipe with a ladder alongside, we had to climb up the the inside of the silo on rungs which were spaced about two and a half feet apart," he says. "When reaching the top of the silo, without seeing it, you had to reach over the roof and grab a horseshoe and pull yourself up and over the cement roof with just enough room to step on the top rungs inside the silo. Then you had to reach the first of six horseshoes on the cement roof. When pulling the old temporary pipes up, you had to hook the rope and pulley on the horseshoe."
The horseshoe, like the early silo, is a vanishing symbol of our agrarian tradition. But both are useful reminders of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the American farmer. FC
Gary Van Boozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.