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Blue Tombstones?

That title should get your attention! I am talking here about a particular type of silo found on livestock farms—blue Harvestores made by AO Smith like that in the picture below. Silos are everywhere in the country landscape in North America (and elsewhere). Maybe after barns, there is no more iconic landmark for a farm. Have you ever seen a farm playset for little kids that includes a barn but NOT a silo?

So, why are there so many silos around? The reason is that they are used for storage of silage, an important cattle feed. Silage is mainly made from corn and sometimes from hay and grasses. In the case of corn, the entire corn plant is chopped up green in late summer and then blown (literally) up into the silo. Then the silo is sealed and the silage ferments to create a feed that cattle, and dairy cows in particular, love to eat. Cattle have to have forage and this is a favorite.

Back to Harvestores. After Prohibition ended in the ’30s, the AO Smith company figured out how to attach fiberglass to steel to create vats for making beer at newly legalized breweries. Someone said, hmmm, if we stack these things up and put a top on it that would make a great silo. And they painted them with their trademark blue color. Harvestores became hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s, with sales peaking in 1979. But, then things went South. The farm crisis hit in the early 80s taking out many of cattle feeders and dairies that had purchased Harvestores.

This is where the nickname “Blue Tombstone” was born. Unlike other ag investment failures that are largely hidden from view, the farm where someone went bankrupt feeding cattle or dairying was forever marked by these distinctive structures. They are costly to remove and can stand for a very long time, so they became a silent monument to what turned out to be a bad agricultural investment. And to top it off, some families painted their names near the top of the silo so everyone could see. Ouch. This is still very much a sore subject in agriculture. See one of my recent twitter threads if you have doubts.

Silos (including Harvestores) are still in use on cattle and dairy farms but have been replaced in many cases by flat storage bunkers for silage. These are much cheaper to construct and can be more easily filled and unloaded with large payloaders. And if you go bankrupt, no one can see your blue tombstone from miles away.

Laurence J. Norton Chair of Agricultural Marketing
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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1 Comment

  1. Matthew Hickey

    I know about the financial end of Harvestores, but there may be a darker side to the Blue Tombstones. Many people did not understand just how oxygen-limiting these silos were. They went to do repairs or break a jam, and they perished in their Blue Tombstone. It is not a subject that we like to remember or ponder on, but it happened and left much sadness throughout the country side. There may be more than one reason they are called Blue Tombstones.

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