Monuments to past dairy herds

John Oncken
The iron “U” shaped steps on many older poured concrete older silos did not offer much of a feeling of security when climbing.

Dairy farmers, former dairy farmers and would-be dairy farmers will always remember the cows, the barns and the farm fields that are such a big part of Wisconsin dairying.   But, cows come and go depending on their milk and reproduction records.

A very few are remembered for decades via their production, show records and photos. True, many  dairy farmers (especially older farmers who had small herds) remember cow’s names and their individual habits and idiosyncrasies.

Dairy barns are a second home for those who work with the animal care routines that are repeated so often that many farmers know more about the barn than the house in which they live.  

Silos came to be

Then there are the upright silos that hold the all-important feed that keeps the milk flowing and the milk checks coming. To the non-farmer they appear much the same - round and tall.  They are seldom the subject of family memories, nor did I ever hear a farmer brag about his “great silo.”

The first silos were mere holes in the ground dug to preserve the entire stock of grass or corn for winter cattle feed. Then came bigger rectangular holes called trench silos, followed by the short, upright structures made of wooden boards fitted together (staves)  or concrete and field stone. 

ile silos were a choice of some farmers.

First upright silo in Wisconsin

Dr. L.W. Weeks built two square stone and concrete upright silos on his Oconomowoc farm in 1880 that were acknowledged as the first “upright” silos in Wisconsin. The square silos had corners that hindered solid packing of the corn and the silage often spoiled, thus silos moved to a round shape. (Note: The Weeks farm was later to become a part of the famed Pabst Farms.)

Silos by the thousands

Silos on Wisconsin dairy farms sprouted like weeds as dairying replaced wheat as the main state agricultural enterprise and by 1889 there some 2000 silos across the state.  A few of the first upright silos were built inside a round barn for feeding ease but because of the difficulty of filling and that the barns were limited in stanchion space, had a relatively short popularity. (Note: Silage results from storing a crop under anaerobic conditions that causes a fermentation process resulting in an end product called ensilage or silage.) 

The 18 by 30 foot stone silo with a 14 foot water tank on top has stood next to the old UW-Madison dairy barn for over 125 years

In the late 1800’s Professor F. H. KIng at the UW-Madison, through extensive research, did much to popularize the round silo that went on to become the accepted form of preserving corn and hay in a fermented form.

As dairying grew in Wisconsin, farmers were eager to try the new method of ensiling their summer crops for winter feed. Upright silos were made of many materials: Wood, stone, brick, steel, tile, concrete staves and poured concrete among them with concrete stave and poured concrete emerging as the standard.

Harvestores changed farming

In the late 1950’s and 1960’s the blue, glass lined, airtight, steel Harvestore appeared on the scene and literally changed the silage and hay-making scene. Not only did the company sell the blue, distinctive, airtight  Harvestores, they sold the story of making quality hay by cutting early and storing properly. I’ve often written that the Harvestore (although expensive) was the major factor in moving farmers to cut hay in early June (rather than late June or July as was customary) thus providing far more nutritious forage (haylage). 

Fear of climbing

An upright silo demands at some point that they must be climbed. I was deathly afraid of climbing the 36-foot-tall poured concrete silo while growing up on the Oncken farm in Dane county.  But, I had to do it as I was the older son — I don’t remember my brother eagerly offering, but I’m sure he also did it at times — and my dad didn’t seem to want to make the climb to put up and later take down the filler pipe.  

Safety cages now surround the rungs on modern concrete silos.

My knees still get weak when I remember climbing those steel, two feet apart, square U shaped rungs to put the rope through the pulley attached to the frame of the opening at the top in order to pull up the filler pipe.  And making sure the pipe entered the little window in the right position.  

I still don’t know how I did that climb up the outside of the silo, yet climbing up the inside chute a thousand times to throw down silage for the twice daily feeding was no problem. The difference was the chute which took away the feeling of being high up and offered some solid support to lean against. 

The big dairy herds of today require more silage than an upright silo can store.

Big herds, bigger storage

With the advent of the mega dairies of the past several decades came the horizontal bunker silos and plastic bags that offer low cost initial financial outlay, and fast filling and feeding but also offer the potential of greater spoilage if not properly packed.    

I suspect there is now an entire generation of dairy farmers who never climbed a silo, rather always handled silage with an end loader mixing their total mixed ration in a forage box wagon and unloading on-the-go into the freestall mangers. 

Monolithic upright silos are still being built today although few in number as herds expand in size and fast, mobile feed handling expands.          

Many of Wisconsin’s original over 100,000 estimated upright silos still survive. Many standing lonesome and abandoned, but many in use daily on the many small farm dairy operations. Each has stories to tell of the people who filled and emptied them and of the cows who thrived on what they provided.  

These two 30 by 132 foot poured concrete silos at the Lavey Dairy near Malone are the state’s tallest farm silos.

As dairy farms expand and new freestall – milking parlor facilities are built, the original small farms are often sold to hobby farmers who may use the barn for 4-H animals or horses for a while. The barns are eventually removed or left empty to ultimately fall down but the upright silos often remain tall and sturdy.   

A ride down most any rural road will enable one to see any number of them still standing – but empty – concrete silos, each with its own story of the people who filled them and emptied them to feed the family dairy herd. Eventually they will be demolished (not an easy job) but for now they remain strong, sturdy and straight up – as monuments to the dairy cows for which they were built and served so well.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at