Those Aren’t Silos

They’re grain bins. Big cylinders that rise high overhead out in the country. What’s the difference?

grain carts at sunset

Grain bins are basically just big buildings that are filled with grain for storage. The basic idea goes back to when Joseph (of multi-colored-coat Biblical and Broadway fame) was working in Egypt and recommended that folks store grain during years of good harvest to eat in lean years. Since we’re participants, like it or not, in a worldwide grain-trading economy, we put crops in the bin in hopes that we will be able to sell at higher prices after the harvest-time glut.

Bins are usually cylindrical and metal, with conical metal roofs. They are used to store whole grain between harvest and use or sale. Silos, on the other hand, are often made of thicker material such as concrete or fused glass and steel because they need to be very strong and airtight in order to contain fermenting grain and sometimes other plant matter (called “silage”). The fermentation process renders it digestible for livestock. The cylindrical metal structures that are made of a metal mesh that you can see through are corn cribs (which come in many other shapes and are often made of wood) – those are used to store whole ears of corn. Cribs were more common before combine harvesters, when dry corn ears were picked whole and then slowly shelled (had kernels removed from the cob) as they were needed.

corn auger set-up

Over the course of several months in 2012, we put up some bins on the farm. And when I say “we,” what I mean is that we purchased used bins from a neighbor and then hired professionals to deconstruct them, move them a mile and a half down the road, and reconstruct them next to our shed.

In the muddy days of February, we measured and laid out the bin footprints.

marking out bin foundations

We hired some friends to help dig the and pour concrete footings for the foundations, which had to be about 2 feet deep and stocked with re-bar.

bin foundation footings

(Digging this deep in the mostly-frozen mud was not fun, but it was essential. As the bin foundations inevitably crack over time, pests would be able to enter by burrowing underneath shallower footings. Eew.)

Here’s where the professionals come in: metal forms were placed around the foundation-to-be, and a beautiful maze of re-bar and wire was balanced on chunks of broken cinder blocks to reinforce the concrete.

bin foundation prep

bin foundations
(We definitely left our marks in this perfect-looking concrete.)

Then one day as we were working on the west side of the shed, all of a sudden, the top of a bin came driving around the corner of the lane. It was surprising and magical, like seeing a walking house!

bin top moving

I <3 grain storage

Re-construction took some time, as the crew would come for a day and then go to work on a more urgent job. That was fine with us – we didn’t need the grain storage until July (for wheat) at the earliest. Once the bin tops were in place on the foundations, they would be lifted with jacks so that one sidewall band could be added at a time. Wind was a serious concern, so they had to be re-fastened to the foundations between workdays.

bins in progress
Bins in varying stages of completion.

Our new/used grain bins had come from a neighboring farm where they had stored grain that was not certified organic. When they were finally complete, we had to clean them to the best of our ability in order to prevent contamination from the conventional (possibly GMO) former contents. Since water and dust make a pasty mess, we decided to use abrasion and air. This meant that I took an extension ladder inside each bin and manually brushed every inch of the interior walls, from the top down. When I had brushed as much as I could reach from one position, I would use an air compressor nozzle to blow the dust down to a lower level, climb down, move and reset the ladder, and then climb up to do another arm-width’s worth of cleaning.

empty bin, from the top
View from the top of the ladder inside the bin. You can see the gunk on the walls below.

I had to change my dust mask every few hours while cleaning the bins.

dirty job

Let’s just say that I’m glad this is a job I only have to do once! (As long as we store only certified organic grain in these bins in the future.)

Everything was clean and closed up, with electricity and moving parts installed and tested, by the time our soybean crop was ready for harvest in October. Soybeans moved from left to right in the photo below, from the wagon to the rotary seed cleaner and then via big red auger up to the top of the bin.

soybean cleaning
Soybeans being cleaned and loaded into the new bin.

Side note: The gravity-feed grain wagon (pale green, to the left in the photo above) was a product of my first solo trip to a farm equipment auction. Holy cow, auctions are nerve-wracking! I was lucky that my friend Rob Montalbano happened to be there to calm me down and bolster my confidence.

Our largest bin can store up to 6,000 bushels (168,000 tons) of corn. The two smaller bins hold 3,000 bushels each, and they are used for soybeans and either dry beans or wheat. With 12,000 bushels of storage space, we now have much greater control over the sale prices of our grain. Being able to store grain also increases our ability to sell grain locally: since we can keep it on hand, we can now sell a little at a time to more individual end-user customers. Eventually, we would like to be able to sell all our grain to local folks this way.

bin-top view
Added perk: the top of the bin offers a beautiful view of the farm.


One response to “Those Aren’t Silos

  1. Cool! Not a simple job.

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