Ferns and other plants grow in the bottom of an unused silo. Note the curvature of the silo at the back of the photo.



 I don’t remember the first time I heard the word "silos’" used to describe groups operating in isolation from each other rather than farm buildings, but the use is increasing.

In a recent news story about Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch’s plan to do away with the Levee Commission and other advisory boards, Klipsch was quoted as saying that a consolidation would promote a pooling of resources, rather than “looking at it as one silo over here and another silo over there.”

Still, the use startles me. For me, a silo will always be a tall, round building used to store chopped cornstalks called silage that is fed to animals.

How did this change come about?

According to Wikipedia, the new usage was coined in 1988 by Illinois native Phil S. Ensor who worked in organizational development and employee relations for several companies including Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. He observed that "silos" within organizations can hinder progress.

As time passes, maybe the new meaning will become more familiar than the original. I remember a conversation several years ago with one of our son’s 20-something friends who, though raised in the Midwest, did not know what farm silos were or how they worked.

Oh, my.

Our family farm has two silos, one made of clay blocks, the other of concrete.

The latter is a Hanson silo, made by a Minnesota company of the same name that began in 1916. A distinguishing feature of Hanson silos was that the company painted a black and white checkerboard band around the top to distinguish its brand. For a long time, when my dad referred to the Hanson silo, I thought he was saying the “handsome silo.”

 Feeding, making silage

When my dad was feeding cattle, his morning chores began with climbing up into the silo — there was a ladder attached to the outside, covered by a chute — to scoop and toss down the chute about a ton of silage, by hand, using a silage fork.

The silage landed in a wagon at the bottom of the chute and, when the wagon was full, Dad would climb back down this ladder and, with a tractor, pull the wagon alongside the wooden feed bunks in our outside cattle yard. Then he would climb into the wagon and toss the silage into the bunks, once again by hand.

In time, Dad bought mechanical unloaders for the silo and for the wagon, eliminating all the by-hand work.

In the dead of winter, the silage steamed, and the cattle relished it, pushing their way into the lines that formed at the bunks.

Of course, before Dad could feed silage, he had to make it, and that was a major harvest chore. He’d drive through the fields on a tractor pulling a chopper, with a big wagon behind that. Once the wagon was full, he’d haul it to our building site where he’d back up to a horizontal hopper.

With a tined fork, he’d pull the “green chop” out of the wagon and into the hopper where it would advance mechanically to a big blower pipe that would send it hurtling up to the top of the silo. There it would drop to the bottom, filling the silo, load by load. Over a period of months, the stalks would ferment and that’s when the silage would be fed.

All the machinery involved in silage-making created an incredible racket, a one-of-a-kind sound that I’ll never forget and likely will never hear again.

And just about everything involved with silage was dangerous; a farmer could die in multiple ways. One of the most common hazards was the presence of numerous spinning shafts within close proximity. If a farmer happened to get the cuff of his pants caught, the force and speed of the spinning would literally pull him into the shaft.

A distinguishing feature of silage is its smell. What comes closest is the odor of wet grass clippings that have been sitting in a yard waste bag during a week of hot weather, only sweeter. Phew!

 Silo invented in 1873

Although silos were common when I was growing up, they didn’t always exist. While people involved in agriculture created pits for holding grain as far back as ancient Greece, it wasn’t until 1873 in McHenry County, Illinois, that the silo was invented by Fred Hatch. He was the son of a dairy farmer and a graduate of Illinois Industrial College, now the University of Illinois, according to the website farmshow.com.

Silage was a new kind of feed for livestock at the time, and farmers were trying to come up with ways of storing it. At first it was stored on the ground with a rock base, but water caused spoilage. Building a tower eliminated that problem.

By 1886 there were more than 5,000 silos in the United States, according to the farmshow website. Various materials were used, including wood, clay blocks, concrete blocks, cast concrete and, finally, in the case of the iconic blue Harvestore silos you see dotting Scott County, steel panels.

Today, tower silos aren’t used much. First, there aren’t as many cattle feeders. Second, storage has moved back to the ground. Bunkers made of concrete panels keep out water, the original drawback of on-ground storage. They also are cheaper to build, considerably quicker to fill and unload, and they can be moved.

A bunker will never have the charm of a silo, though.

 Silo as terrarium

And there’s one more thing.

On day a couple of years ago I was walking through our old cattle yard and happened to stick my head in the bottom door of the Hanson silo. What I saw amazed me. Although the silo had not been used for many years, it was not empty.

It had turned into a giant terrarium!

Apparently through time, different plant seeds from who-knows-where came flying through the air and dropped into the open-top silo. At the bottom, those seeds took root in a thin layer of soil that also must have blown in. And then they grew and flourished, all kinds of ferns and assorted greenery.

It was a handsome sight.