Monday, November 4, 2013

The End Of An Era

That sounds dire.  I guess I should say we're just taking the next step in the evolution of the farm.  But it's true - there is a clear signal that the dairy days are irrevocably Over.  Disassembly of two of our six silos began today.

The center and left silos are 18 feet across by 50 feet high. The one to the right is 60 feet tall. 
When we sold the dairy cows in 2000 we were in no hurry to deal with them.  They were in good shape, we were still flirting with the idea of maybe having some beef cattle and there were just so many other things to think about.  The silos weren't hurting anything so they didn't get much thought.  Fast forward (it was fast, too!) ten years and it had become apparent that we were never going to have a use for them.  More than that, time was gnawing on them every year and we knew we would have to address them before long.  Even concrete becomes fragile with time.   Unfortunately, this is one job Andy couldn't undertake himself even if he was desperate.  It takes very particular equipment to un-build a silo.

Finding a company to take them down proved difficult.  First, such businesses are about as common as buggy whip factories - there just isn't much call for them anymore.  There are people who will topple them (judging by some videos I've seen some of those guys apparently have a day job as stunt people for the Jackass TV series) and leave you to clean up the mess.  This was not an option - even assuming that the silo could be steered accurately - since the silos are surrounded by the barn, other silos, the road and power lines.  Price was also a factor - one company who would take a silo apart quoted at least 4K per silo PLUS the cost of a cherry picker rental and mileage from the other side of the state AND they would leave you the rubble to clean up.  We decided to bide our time and watch for leads.

An expanding Mennonite community a few towns over finally afforded us an opportunity.  When an ad appeared in the Country Folks newspaper for used silos to be taken down and reused, we pounced!  They came to look over the situation, we discussed details and a happy deal was struck.  They would take the 2 middle ones now and would probably plan to take the others in the near future when they could find other farmers new to the area who would need them.  One of the fellows has worked on a silo crew for some years and has his own scaffolding - the crucial piece of equipment - and so they are beginning today.

Step one - take a sledgehammer and knock a few staves out near the bottom.  There is still a few feet of spoilage in the bottoms of these two.  The hole is right at the level of the surface of that material. 

The rightmost silo has several feet in it so the hole is up higher.

The flatbed is loaded with pallets that will hold the concrete staves.  They'll be unloaded nearby until the actual disassembly begins.  Today they are taking the unloaders out and at least one roof off.

A brief explanation of silos in case you are unfamiliar - silos are basically a device for preserving and storing animal feed, primarily forage (alfalfa, corn, clover, timothy, etc) for dairy cattle.  The magic of a silo is that it is designed to be filled from the top with fresh green plant material (wilted to a certain degree but not much) which compresses under it's own weight to the point that it drives out air.  Without air the plant material won't rot but it WILL ferment.  The fermentation process literally pickles the plant material (think saurkraut) and will hold it in a preserved state until needed as feed.  There is some loss on the top of the silo where some air remains trapped in the forage but the vast bulk below that is good.  You have ensiled the forage.  You can have corn silage, alfalfa haylage, clover haylage, etc.  A variation of the tower silos such as ours are bunk or pit silos which are literally just trenches that you fill with forage and compact with machinery to drive the air out.  There is less cost to create that type of silo but there is greater loss to spoilage.  Another newer option is to wrap round bales with plastic to create an air tight environment - a mini silo - and thus you create baleage.

So how do you get the silage out when you need it?  A device is suspended inside from the top of the silo and lowered until it rests on the surface of the silage.  A long arm extends from the center to the outer wall and slowly sweeps in a circle chewing up the surface and sending the loose silage down a chute to be distributed to the animals.  This is the unloader and each silo has one.  These are what is being taken apart today and removed in pieces through the hole in the silo's wall.

The scaffolding is put in through the hole too, and erected inside the silo all the way to the top.  Then the roof is taken apart in sections and lowered down the outside.  As you might imagine, the sheep were mightily freaked out by this.  We put the biggest group out to pasture and shut the doors so the other penned breeding groups couldn't see what was going on.  They were nervous of the banging and other noise but tolerated it pretty well so long as they couldn't see.

The filler pipe and ladder are taken off the outside.  (To fill a tower silo you literally blow the chopped forage up the pipe on the outside to the top where it passes through a distributor and rains down inside the silo in an even pattern.)

WOW, that looks weird.
And the first load of parts heads for its new home.
The next step will be actual disassembly, probably Wednesday, so tune in then for another episode.
And don't worry - we don't give quizzes.


  1. Very interesting, would like to see more step by step pics, like bringing down the top, Can't wait to see more. Look at all the new ground space you are gaining.

  2. I love this post! I've never even asked the question : how do silos work, but I'm so glad I know.
    I do have a question: who drove the flatbed truck? I thought Mennonites didn't use powered vehicles. Is that wrong?

  3. Loved all these details. I grew up in rural Iowa, but had no idea about how a silo worked. Ingenious!

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