Western Reserve Back Roads: Antiquated and labor intensive, northeast Ohio region's farm silos face bleak future as rural skyscrapers
By CARL E. FEATHER
The harvest is in, but most of the silos in Ashtabula County are empty.
Built of cement, concrete staves, bricks, glass and metal, these former agrarian status symbols stand like rural skyscrapers against the November twilight. In many cases, the farms they once sreved have gone out of business or transitioned from dairy to other livestock. Where dairy operations continue, silo storage has been replaced by bunkers and sausage-like bags, far more efficient and cost-effective ways of storing and retrieving cattle food.
Four of these towers keep watch over the red barn of the Charles and Lucile Cole farm in Williamsfield Township. The tallest of the concrete silos are a pair measuring 20 feet in diameter and 60 feet tall. There's a smaller concrete one, 10 feet in diameter, and the Cadillac of silos, a blue Harvestore.
In their time, the buildings represented substantial financial investments. Indeed, David Marrison, county extension educator, says the large capital investment required to erect a silo is one of the reasons they've fallen out of favor. Charles estimates each cement stave silo on their farm cost at least $12,000 to build 40-some years ago. At that price, it's understandable why farmers often thought more of their barns and silos than their houses.
"It was sort of a good status symbol," Lucile Cole says of silos. "If you didn't have a silo, you weren't quite as good a farmer."
The silo had a singular use on the farm: it was used to store silage, which can be either chopped green hay or chopped green corn with the grain intact. Marrison says there was usually a separate silo for each.
Tom Coltman, who's owned a dairy farm in Wayne Township since 1957, says the value of silage becomes evident during a wet growing season; the farmer can harvest hay and corn crops in narrow windows of opportunity. "Silage keeps us going," he says. "You can make it faster and quicker than hay."
Included in a diet of dry grains and other nutrients, silage can help increase milk production and quality.
"It's high energy food," Marrison says of corn silage. Hay silage, sometimes called hayage, is a high-protein source for cattle.
Silage played an important role in the growth of the Midwest dairy industry by providing a relatively low-cost, nutritious cattle food during the winter months. Because the chopped corn stalks and grain is harvested "wet" and, ideally, stored in an air-tight environment, the silage ferments. But Charles Cole says cows don't get drunk from eating it.
"It's more like sauerkraut," Lucile says, explaining the type of fermentation that occurs. Indeed, teachers and students in rural schools could always detect the youngsters who hailed from dairy farms - - their clothes bore the perfume of morning chores. "When you get used to it, it's a desirable smell, but it clings to your hair and clothes," says Lucile.
When Charles first started farming, the stalks were cut in the field, then hauled to the barn where a tractor-powered chop box minced the stalks and blew the silage up a long pipe to the top of the silo. Most silos have two pipes, on opposite sides. The smaller one is used for filling; the larger one, a chute traversed by a ladder, is for retrieving the silage from the top of the stack. All along this chute, there are doors to provide access to the silage as it's level drops. Some older silos have only the discharge chute and a window or two at the top for filling.
In the pre-mechanization days of silage storage, the feed was forked off the top and down the chute. Amish farmers who store silage in silos continue to use this extremely laborious method. Eventually, mechanized silage unloaders, which spin above the silage and spit it out the chute, became available.
Nevertheless, the silo came to symbolize the hard work and danger inherent to dairy farming. Because of the moisture in silage, it is subject to freezing. Frozen sections of silage must be manually broken up and forked out.
"You let it get away from you, and you will work and work hard," says a Williamsfield Township dairy farmer who didn't want to be identified. He speaks from experience, his former dairy operation encompassed nine upright silos and one pit in the early 1980s.
His silos ranged in height from 35 to 72 feet and 12 to 24 feet in width. Silos, by nature of their height, have the potential to be very dangerous places.
When they are being filled and the silage is fermenting, they can fill with a poisonous gas. There's even a pulmonary condition, silo filler's disease, that's recognized in medical literature.
Many limbs, indeed lives, have been lost to the choppers that reduce the hay and stalks to silage. There's always the risk of slipping off a ladder and falling into the silage, which isn't as soft a landing as one might think. And silage that freezes on the sides of the silo can break off without warning and smother or hit a farmer working in the unfrozen center of the silo.
"A lot can go wrong to a farmer in a silo," says Marrison.
Story concluded Friday, plus a look at wooden silos.
The dairy industry constantly attempted to improve upon silo design, which evolved from pits excavated inside the barn to square, wooden structures often built at the gable end. By the early 1900s, there was a shift to round silos constructed of bricks, concrete, tile blocks and poured concrete. According to Allen G. Noble and Richard K. Cleek, authors of "The Old Barn Book," the beautiful brick silos that dot Ashtabula County's countryside are relatively rare structures.
Many of the silos that remain in Ashtabula County are of concrete stave construction: concrete staves held in place by iron bands and rods. A handful of farms - - those that were particularly prosperous or whose owners were willing to go deeply into debt for the latest in silage storage - - have the blue Harvestore silos. Invented by the A.O. Smith Company after World War II, these silos empty from the bottom with an auger and have glass interiors that reduced freezing issues and provided a somewhat air-tight environment to reduce spoilage.
Marrison says silos, regardless of their style, became inefficient and expensive as the size of dairy operations increased. Typically, silage coming out of the chute would be collected in a wheelbarrow or wagon. But when a farmer has 300 to 600 cattle to feed, like the Coltman farm, that's an impractical way of retrieving and distributing food.
Tom Coltman says that's why they went to a bunker system - - an above-ground enclosure made from concrete blocks and covered with plastic. The enclosure is easy to fill and the feed can be removed with a front-end loader and placed into a feeding truck that has weight scales on it to ensure a correct mix of feed. The truck is brought into the open-air barn and the food spit out to the cattle.
"You can feed 500 cows faster that way than you can feed 50 the other way," says Marrison.
Coltman says their farm made silage from 250 acres of hay cut three times this year and 250 acres of corn. It won't all fit in the 15-foot-tall bunker, which is along Route 322 just east of Route 11. The surplus goes into their silos. They also use one of their silos for high-moisture shelled corn, which is allowed to ferment.
"We mix it with the silage to give it more energy," Coltman says.
Marrison says that's about the limit to a silo's secondary uses, however. It is possible to convert them to storage for low-moisture corn, but it's an expensive option, usually more so than putting up a steel grain bin.
And so they stand unused and empty - - except for the pigeons who roost in their domes.
Most livestock farmers who don't use silage in their operations simply ignore the agrarian spires unless the dome gets ripped off in a windstorm. Silos, by their very nature, were built to be very sturdy and withstand tremendous amounts of outward pressure. And they do so for decades.
The four silos - - two concrete and two brick - - behind Daniel Yates' house on Route 7 in Richmond Township are of no value to Yates' pig operation. "They are coming down," says Yates. "I have a man in Pierpont who is going to take them down as soon as he can get to them."
Yates says only two of the silos are scheduled for demolition, the 53-foot-tall brick ones.
"My wife don't like them and they are restricting going in and out of the barn," says Yates.
James Rea, the Pierpont man Yates plans to hire for the job, says he took down two similar silos on Route 45 two years ago.
"It's just like falling a tree," says Rea. "You do it with a sledge hammer."
Doesn't he worry about the silo falling on him? "You use common sense," he says.
Rea plans to haul away the bricks for fill, in equally laborious fashion.
"With my two hands and a truck," he says.
Star Beacon Print Edition: 11/23/2006