Grain storage transformation. The concrete silos of yesterday sit empty. New, lighter, more portable bins have replaced them as farmers learn more about safe grain storage and proper bin ventilation. | by Mary MacArthur, Camrose bureau
BITTERN LAKE, Alta. – It was a push to modernize that encouraged Walter McNary to build the concrete silo in 1974.
His son, George, had returned home to farm and encouraged his father to modernize their 50-cow dairy from a pit silo to something more automated.
For $24,000, the family built the 24 foot diameter, 70 foot high silo and added cross augers that brought the silage into the barn.
“Farmers are always looking for something better,” Walter said about concrete silos scattered across the Prairies.
However, it wasn’t long before the deficiencies of the upright concrete silo in the cold Canadian Prairies became clear.
“There were a lot of problems with freezing. You had to watch if the frost got in, someone would have to go in and pick the silage off the sides,” he said.
“When it was working, it worked pretty good, but freezing in the winter was the biggest headache.”
The silage was sliced from the top and unloaded out a chute on the side of the silo and down into the barn. It was almost impossible for the auger to cut through the frozen silage and pull it onto the unloading auger and out the silo.
McNary said the unloading auger lasted about seven years before it needed to be replaced for another $17,000.
“It sounds cheap now, but it wasn’t,” said Walter’s wife, Myrtle, who said the silo was the first concrete silo built in the area.
The family used it on their Bittern Lake dairy until the dairy was shut down in 1992.
Not wanting to see the expensive silo sit unused, Walter approached the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus to use the silo as a possible climbing wall.
“It didn’t get very far,” said Walter, who has read articles about silos in the United States turned into apartments.
“I’ve always figured it was a pretty big investment to sit and do nothing.”
Former CFCW radio station owner Hal Yerxa built another pair of concrete silos down the road from the McNarys, and Wilf Weber, former manager of Weyga Farms in Camrose, was forced to deal with them when he bought the land in the late 1970s.
“In the winter time they didn’t work too well,” he said.
Winter wind from the northwest froze the moist silage to the concrete wall, forcing Weber or other staff to climb to the top of the silo and chip away at the frozen silage so that the unloading auger could peel the silage out and bring it down to the cattle.
“They were not made for these kinds of weather conditions,” he said.
“The quality was good, but in the winter it froze to the sides and unloading was quite difficult.”
Weber used the silos for storing silage for two years before calling it quits and making silage in on-ground pits.
Harry Brook, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said salespeople travelled the Prairies in the 1970s convincing farmers to build concrete silos or similar blue Harvestore silos.
“It really was very, very expensive way to store silage,” said Brook.
“Just about every third person who bought one went bankrupt.”
Cattle producer Dave Solverson said the tombstones, as they are sometimes called, cost more than a quarter section of land.
“People invested way too much in these and ended up losing their farms.”
Brook said the upright silos had little spoilage but it came at a high cost that wasn’t justified for low-value silage.
“You cannot pay for the cost of upright silos in your lifetime. Silage is still a low value commodity.”
Ken Lewis of Lewis Farms in Spruce Grove, Alta., still uses one of their five silos to store high moisture barley. He plans to convert the others to dry grain storage in the future.
Lewis said times have changed since the silos were built.
In 1978, when the first two were built, farms made their own silage. The slower pace allowed the silos to be slowly filled as the silage was blown to the top of the silo. Now, with larger farms and custom silage operators, the silage needs to be put in an easy fill pit.
Silage freezing to the walls was an issue for Lewis, but he said it could be managed by putting the silage up at lower moisture and knowing how to work the silos.
“The experience of employees about silos seems to have diminished dramatically,” he said.
Lewis said they are not going to get technical when they convert their concrete silos into dry grain storage. They plan to knock a hole in the side at the height of an auger and fill it that way. They will use a grain vacuum to suck it out the bottom.
Ron Goerz, a salesperson for Selmac Sales, which sold the equipment inside the Dominion silos, said six companies once sold silos to farmers.
There were three main types of silo:
Stave block silos, which were pre-poured concrete blocks held together with clamps and parged inside with concrete.
Concrete silos poured in sections.
Metal silos with glass lining.
Goerz said the upright silos were a transition between dry hay and pit silos.
“They were great for the small beef or dairy farm,” he said. “Silage was just coming into its own. Before that it was mostly dry hay.”
He said Dominion Silo sold 80 silos in 1979 but only 10 to 15 five years later.
“It was an era.”
THEN: Wheat “currency”
When Three Hills, Alta., farmer Clayton Wilfred Thomas decided to cut farming operations from 3000 acres to 160, he held an auction at which wheat could be used as payment on purchases over $500.
Auctioneer Dunc Peters is seen here with five-year-old combines which sold for 8000, 8050 and 7650 bushels respectively.
No. 2 or 3 Northern wheat was accepted at value of $1 per bushel. Mr. Thomas, who plans to sell the wheat to livestock feeders, says sales receipts exceeded $100,000. He had expected a top of $70,000. An estimated 1000 Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers attended the auction.
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