The Evolving History of the Agricultural Silo: Hay Storage in the New World

The practice of hay harvesting and storage has changed with improving technology, with the process especially revolutionized by the invention of the silo.

Hay Barrack

Reconstructed hay barrack, Herkimer Home State Historic Site, near Little Falls, Herkimer Country. With a roof that could be raised or lowered, hay barracks protected the hay they covered from the worst weather.

Photo by Cornell University Press

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Effective hay and silage storage was essential to European settlers in the New World, where there was great demand for animal feed and the terrain was well suited for hay production. Corresponding additions to the farm landscape, including various silo forms, were the product of experimentation by early American farmers to increase the longevity of harvested grains. In Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State, author Cynthia G. Falk explores the evolution of rural architecture and agricultural technology including advancements in hay cultivation and storage. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, "From Haystacks to Silos."

Storing Hay Throughout History

Hay barracks were introduced in the New World by Dutch settlers to New Netherland, and the form continued to be used even after the English took control of New York. Used to cover stored hay, these simple open-sided structures consisted of four or more wooden posts supporting a roof, usually of thatch, which could be raised or lowered to protect hay stacked beneath. Some hay barracks had a permanent location on a farm; they might have a stone foundation or posts set into the ground. Other barracks were portable, set on skids so they could be moved to wherever they were needed.

The initial use of hay barracks is associated with New York’s Dutch settlers, but the form was adopted by New Yorkers of other ethnicities as well. Hay barracks were erected from Long Island to western portions of the state. They were most common from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, although contributors to the agricultural press advocated for their construction as late as the second half of the nineteenth century, and some older structures were still in use into the twentieth century.

Hay, the grass crop the barracks protected, can be grown on hilly terrain and in heavy soils that are not well suited for grain or other crops. Before the advent of the automobile and the decline of horse-drawn vehicles, hay was harvested throughout New York State, with high concentrations in the Hudson Valley to provide feed for horses and other animals in the city. More recently, hay production has fallen off in the region surrounding New York City. The counties with the most acreage in hay are in the Adirondacks and Southern Tier, while the highest average yields per acre are found on the rich farmland of western and central New York.

Through the nineteenth century, hay was routinely cut by hand with scythes. Once cut, it was raked into small piles, or haycocks, and left to dry, or cure, in the field. New York farmers of the mid-nineteenth century were encouraged to cover their haycocks with hay caps made of fabric sheeting to protect them from dew and rain. Farmers began using horse-powered mowers to cut grass crops in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hay rakes, also drawn by horses, created long rows of cut grass, known as windrows, in which hay could cure.  In the twentieth century, tractor-mounted mowers and rakes became the standard equipment for harvesting the hay crop.

Once cut and cured, hay could be stored in three different ways: stacked or baled in open fields, sometimes with the protection of a hay barrack; loose in sheds or the haymows of barns; or in small bundles or bales in hay-drying sheds or in barns. Keeping as much hay as possible dry was the goal, as well as the reason for New York’s early hay barracks. When kept outside in haystacks, the hay on the outside of the stack was damaged by moisture; the inside of a well constructed haystack, however, would stay protected for a number of years. Loose or bundled hay stored in a barrack, shed, or barn remained undamaged, so long as the roof did not leak, and remained fit for animal consumption for up to three years.

The invention of the hay fork, a device used to transfer hay from wagons into haymows or lofts within the barn, made storing loose hay inside easier. A grasping device suspended from a track along the inside of the barn roof was lowered into a hay wagon, where the farmer loaded it with hay. Horses, guided by another person, provided the power to lift the hay up into the hayloft of the barn, where it could be stored until needed. One of the early patents for a hay fork, or hay elevator, was filed by C. E. Gladding in 1858. The 1859 edition of Moore’s Rural New-Yorker praised the invention:

[We] were highly pleased with its operation. . . . It unloaded about a tun [ sic ] of hay, placing it in the loft of a livery stable, (the wagon standing in the street,) and pitching through a small door, doing its work in a very perfect and expeditious manner. From this test, in a difficult place,

In the 1860s the hay fork became a popular agricultural tool, one that farmers continued to use at least through the end of the 1930s. Hay fork designs included the harpoon fork, which consisted of one or two prongs that pierced a hay load and transported it to a designated spot, and the grapple fork, a set of claw-shaped prongs that grasped a hay load and carried it to a specific location. The grapple fork, which could handle loose or baled hay, replaced the harpoon as the hay fork of choice during the early 1900s. Hay forks required a power source, usually horses, to raise and lower them as well as to move them back and forth along the roof of the barn. Although they still required multiple farmhands to operate them, hay forks and other nineteenth-century innovations, as the agricultural press put it, “substituted mechanical and animal powers for human muscles at times when the demand for the latter is often far greater than the supply.”

The hay press, though slower to be adopted than the hay fork, was another invention that changed the way hay was stored. Hay presses, which were available as early as the mid-nineteenth century, were usually portable, moved from farm to farm, and used to create compressed bundles of hay. In the early twentieth century, the term “hay press” was gradually replaced by “hay baler.” The small bales these machines produced could be stacked on top of one another in open fields, sheds, or haymows. Baled hay was highly transportable, more readily sold, and easier to store in large quantities, causing farmers to turn away from loading loose hay into barns to baling and stacking it instead.

New balers introduced in the late twentieth century can bind hay into massive cylindrical bales, which farmers usually leave in the fields like old-fashioned haystacks. Although it is not as distinctive as one of New York’s Dutch hay barracks, the same ultimate function is accomplished today by the white plastic wrap that is often used to protect the large bales from moisture.

Silos Join the Farm Landscape

The term “silo” brings to mind the towering structures located adjacent to barns. In practice, the word can be applied to a number of different storage options for silage, a moist, fermented fodder fed to cows and sheep. Silage, unlike the grains and grasses discussed earlier, is stored moist. Its high moisture content leads to fermentation in an oxygen-deprived environment, a process known as ensilage. Silage can be made from a variety of plant materials, especially corn, which is harvested and processed with the stalk, cob, and husk. Silage made from alfalfa may be referred to as haylage; that from oats is known as oatlage.

Silos for storing silage come in four principal forms: pits, towers, bunkers, and bags. In all forms, silos are a relatively recent introduction to the farm landscape. The earliest silos were storage pits located within the barn itself. In 1875 the American Agriculturalist published what may be the first account of an American example on a large dairy farm owned by the Brady family in Katonah, in Westchester County. The article explained:

The pit in which the grains are stored, is a deep cellar, walled with stone and cement, and covered with a roof. A door from the bottom of the pit opens into the stable, and permits the removal of the grains as may be needed. In this pit several thousand bushels of grains may be stored, and being packed down closely, and kept from access of air, may be preserved in good order for months. It is upon a similar plan to this, that French farmers are now preserving their corn-fodder in a green state, until the new crop comes in.

More than two years later authors were still commenting on the novelty of the arrangement—now using the term “silo”—and promoting its adoption for corn in the United States.

Over the last two decades of the nineteenth century, farmers in New York and elsewhere experimented with silo forms. One of the chief concerns was how to fill the silo after the crop was harvested and then empty it as the silage was needed for feed. Pit silos could be easily loaded from the top but were often difficult and dangerous to empty, owing to a buildup of toxic gases at the base. Tower silos, by contrast, required some sort of mechanical means to fill. When questioned in 1899 about filling a twenty-four-foot-tall tower silo, the New York Bureau of Farmers’ Institutes noted that horse power was not enough; an engine, at that time most likely powered by steam, was needed to elevate the crop material to the top of a tower silo.

Tower silos were built either within or immediately outside the barn so that feed was convenient to where animals were housed. The first tower silos, originating in the 1880s, were rectangular in form and consisted of a wood frame covered with vertical or horizontal boards. Sometimes the interior was lined with vertical tongue-and-groove boards, and the inside corners could be rounded off to create a polygonal shape.

Progressive farmers understood that there were certain characteristics required for a good silo: strong walls that would allow the silage to be firmly packed, smooth walls that silage could slide down without leaving air pockets, and tight walls that prevented air and moisture from getting inside. Because of New York’s climate, silos were also expected to keep silage freezing to a minimum. And for economic reasons, the longevity of a silo was a concern. The rectangular wooden silo was therefore not a good choice: it had corners in which silage could get trapped; it was not well insulated; and the wooden siding was subject to rot. Even more durable stone silos that were square in cross-section proved problematic as silage remained caught in the corners.

Farmers abandoned the rectangular silo for round tower silos in the 1890s. Although wood remained the chief building material, vertical tongue-and-groove staves, held in place with iron bands and turnbuckles, became the standard after 1894. As a turn-of-the-century barn builders’ guide noted: “The cheapest form of a silo is the round stave construction. . . . Probably the average life of a stave silo is somewhere between five and ten years. But a farmer can tear down and rebuild because the material is comparatively cheap and there is not much of it.” An alternative to the cylindrical form was a wooden silo that was polygonal in cross-section. In either case, farmers usually ordered silos from a silo company, which in New York included the Harder Manufacturing Company in Cobleskill and the Unadilla Silo Company. The life of the wooden members could be extended to some extent by coating them in creosote.

For those who wanted a material other than wood, fieldstone, brick, and clay tile were other options, although they all required the skills of a mason. Galvanized metal also provided an alternative. It was concrete, however, that revolutionized tower silo building in the twentieth century. Round silos could be built out of curved concrete block, poured in place to create a monolithic concrete structure, or composed of precast vertical concrete staves held in place by metal hoops similar to those used on wooden stave silos. The last technique, which would become especially common, was developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. As one book on the topic predicted as early as 1883, “probably the larger number of silos built in this country will be of concrete,” though of course at that date the author was thinking about pit silos rather than the towering variety that would largely replace them.

After World War II, yet another material was added to the arsenal for silo construction. The A. O. Smith Company introduced a silo constructed from fiberglass bonded to sheets of metal. Known by the trade name Harvestore, these blue silos provided enough insulation to prevent silage from freezing, and they could be unloaded from the bottom, saving on the human labor required to feed stock. Harvestore silos were often larger than other types of tower silos, and they were also more expensive, which limited their use to large, prospering farms.

Today farmers continue to use tower silos, usually of concrete or fiberglass and metal panels, as well as two other silo types. Bunker silos recall the pits used to store silage in the late nineteenth century, although they are located outside rather than inside the barn. Often dug into the side of a hill, they are usually enclosed with concrete walls on three sides. Access for modern farm equipment is on the fourth, downhill side. Silage is protected by plastic tarps on top, often secured with automobile tires. Farmers use bunker silos, which can hold a large capacity, to store haylage. They became common after World War II in areas of large-scale dairying.

Bag silos are the newest type of silage storage. White plastic bags, up to eight feet in diameter, can be filled with grass silage, such as hay. They provide maximum flexibility, as varying quantities of haylage can be stored, and the location of storage can be changed from year to year. Round or loaf shaped, bag silos are often found in fields, especially on dairy farms. They are an economical way to store grass silage on the modern farm.

The need to store grain and hay on the farm has resulted in some of New York State’s most iconic agricultural buildings. In the colonial period, Dutch immigrants introduced the hay barrack, and its use for years after testifies to the persistence of Dutch culture even after the English crown assumed control of New York. Hay barracks, like Dutch barns, are distinctive forms that can be traced to a particular area with a specific cultural pedigree. While these impermanent structures do not survive intact today, their documentation in paintings, in written records, and through museum reconstructions attests to the long history of agriculture in the Empire State.

At the other end of the spectrum, the eye-catching tower silos that dot New York’s rural landscape today were never unique to one area or group, and they do not have as long a history. They do, however, tangibly represent changes in agricultural practices in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Often found on dairy farms, tower silos allowed for grass and grain crops to be stored moist and fermented, thus providing nutritious fodder. Like the granaries and corncribs that came before them, these storage structures give evidence of new ideas for solving old problems. Through their forms, they attest to the continual evolution of the traditional New York farmstead.


Reprinted with permission from Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State by Cynthia G. Falk and published by Cornell University Press, 2012.