Types of Grain Elevators

Learn about the different types of grain elevators and how much grain storage capacity varies from one to the other.

| April 2012

From country elevators to terminal elevators, grain elevators have graced the Midwest landscape and beyond for many years. The American Grain Elevator (Grain Elevator Press, 2012) by Linda Laird celebrates these unique utilitarian structures with over 150 illustrations and the story of how grain storage began and how elevators were invented. Discover the different types of grain elevators and how their purposes in history have transformed due to the ever-changing grain market. This excerpt is taken from the chapter “The American Grain Belt.” 

Three types of grain elevators function in the grain market.

Country elevators vary in size from 30,000 bushels to more than one million bushels and serve as a collection and buying point in rural communities or along railroad lines. They provide short term storage for the farmer to allow him to take advantage of fluctuating prices in the grain market. Shipping to a terminal is usually by railroad although as shortline railroads in the mid-west are ending service and pulling up rails, grain is increasingly moved from isolated country elevators by truck. Some drying and cleaning of grain may occur in country elevators, as well as limited blending and mixing of grains.

The immediate shipment of grain through intermediate facilities became necessary as grain production yields increased after World War II. Country elevators no longer had the capacity to hold the grain that farmers brought in increasing quantities. This led to the development of shipping centers at intermediate points outside the traditional export terminals.

Subterminal elevators usually have a capacity of loading unit trains of 54 to 75 cars for direct shipment to port elevators and the capability of blending and cleaning grain, reducing the bulk of the grain by as much as one tenth. Grain is then rapidly moved by rail to the final destination or a terminal. Subterminals are used year round as farmers sell stored grain in the volatile grain market. Prices at subterminal elevators are slightly higher than at the country elevators and therefore advantageous to nearby farmers bringing grain directly by truck instead of taking it to a closer country elevator.

Terminal elevators have always been the largest of the grain storage complexes. Central Elevator 4 at Buffalo, NY, built in 1915 as a major shipping point on Lake Erie for grain sold in Europe, held 4.5 million bushels of grain. Today, terminal grain elevators may hold 20 million bushels or more. Terminals are located in market centers with access to railroads and shipping facilities, which may include industrial users. They bring together major buyers and sellers and have the capacity to dry the grain, segregate grains of different qualities and blend grains to meet the buyers needs for export or production of flour.

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