There’s a sight on the rural Minnesota countryside that is as commonplace to our state as a crying loon at dusk: the grain silo.
Take a trip out of town anywhere in central and south central Minnesota and you can’t miss the concrete silos towering toward the sky. They’re everywhere, and they are soon becoming a part of history.
The story behind the grain silo, in the U.S., begins around the time Dutch colonists began settling in New York. It was the 17th century, and agriculture was much different than it is today. Most Dutch farmers out east existed mainly on subsistence, planting enough food to feed a family and raising a few animals. A main chore for subsistence farmers was cutting and storing hay. To store the hay, a small structure was built that was round, had fabric wrapped around it and a thatched roof over its top. It was called a hay barrack, and its use was solely to store dry hay.
As settlers began moving west and built farms where winters were cooler, new methods of storing feed for animals was needed. Dairy farmers needed “green” grain to feed the cows in order to produce milk during the cold winter months. Their method was to store feed in partially buried pits called silos. The early silos were rectangular, made of wood and half buried, half exposed. The first of them in McLeod County, as well as all of southern and central Minnesota, were put up shortly after white settlers began coming to the land.
For the purposes they were built, they worked. The silage, grain cut and stored while still green, remained green while it was packed tightly in the silos. The problem, however, is that air was easily caught in the rectangular silos and the silage in the corners began to rot. In addition, the silos were not well insulated and the silage tended to freeze in winter.
The answer to the problems of “box” silos was to build cylinder silos. The earliest of their kind began to appear in the 1880s. The first of their kind were not as round as their modern counterparts, but octagonal. They were modeled after the Dutch hay barracks, but rather than being wrapped in fabric they were built with wooden tongue-and-groove sides that were saturated with creosote.
Even treated, however, the wood tended to rot, paving the way for stone silos. The stone silos, however, were expensive to build. Be that as it may, the expense of a silo did not stop their construction, and by 1895 there were 50,000 of them in Minnesota. By 1903, that number had jumped to 300,000.
In 1903, a new innovation in silo building hit the markets: silo staves. The staves could be mass produced, were cheaper than bricks and did not take a stonesmith to build. They were also durable and needed less structural building than the old wood, brick or stone silos. The staves also allowed for the silo to be perfectly round, offering an airtight cylinder for grain to be tightly packed. In addition to the shape, the silos could be built much taller, meaning farms needed fewer silos to store grain. Because of the size difference, the number of 300,000 silos in 1903 dropped to 36,000 in 1927.
For much of the 20th century, round, concrete silos were a mainstay on all Minnesota farms. By the 1970s, however, they were being replaced with large, blue Harvestore silos. Many who built Harvestores had the name of the farm painted on the side, along with the year the farm was built and the year the silo was erected. Since they were being built during the farming crisis of the 1980s, however, many inadvertently went up, with the current year, at the same time farmers lost their farms. Because of this, they earned the nickname “blue tombstones.”
Though some farms still employ silos today, most dairy farmers have begun what is called flat storage, a method of storing silage on ground that is covered in plastic. It provides large dairy farmers a faster, easier way to retrieve silage out of storage and into feed troughs. Because of this, many silos now sit empty.
The silo may not be used as it once was, but a short drive out of town shows just how important they once were to rural farmers. What’s more, they were built so strong and sturdy that many of them have outlasted the barns they were built along side of.
As with anything, however, a time comes when methods change and the needs are altered. Unfortunately, the silo is likely heading this way. Most likely there will come a day when the very thing that has marked the horizon of the Minnesota countryside, the silo, will be little more than a memory of the past.