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.

| March 2015

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.

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