Barns and bins-silos and sheds; why are they shaped the way they are?

Grain has been stored in bulk since ancient times. Clay, stone and wooden structures that keep it dry have been used in every culture that produces grain crops. By storing their crop until they wish to sell, producers are able to take advantage of better prices.

Grain storage

Grain production begins with the local farmer who fights weeds and weather to produce and harvest a good crop. Most grain elevators in Washington are holding wheat. Dry weather allows the wheat to dry in the field where it must reach a moisture level of 12% or lower before it can be stored in the elevator. The moisture level will not change while it is stored.

At the elevator, grain is dumped into a central pit then elevated to the top. From there it is directed to the appropriate storage structure. A catwalk is used for maintenance work. Wheat from various growers may be stored in the same elevator. Cooperatives separate wheat for various reasons; protein levels, class, etc. It may later be blended to meet characteristics in demand. In the past, elevators used men with brooms and shovels to move grain. Now elevators use sweep augers, conveyors and gravity. As grain is emptied from elevators and bins it is conveyed, blended and weighted into rail cars and barges for shipping.

Early grain elevators were made of wood and sometimes caught fire. They contained a system of pulleys and shafts that pulled the grain up to the top of the structure and then fed it to covered bins for storage.

Modern construction materials allow fireproof elevators to tower above the landscape. Pest control is necessary to make sure rodents and other pests don't get into the food. Food safety requires documentation of control methods.

Potato storage

Pioneers in North America stored their potatoes in root cellars near their houses. Today, commercial potato growers store their crops in huge buildings built especially for storing potatoes. Potatoes in storage are piled up to 20 feet deep. Specialized air circulation systems keep the temperature and humidity as uniform as possible in the pile.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Holterhoff, Washington Potato Commission

This potato shed above is being cleaned for a new crop. The ventilation pipes are temporarily piled outside.

Occasionally an old-fashioned earth-sided potato shed, like the one above, can be spotted in the landscape.

The photo at left provides scale for the amount of potatoes a shed can hold.

(Skagit Valley Produce)

Dry and liquid storage

Crops need fertilizer which can be stored in dry or liquid form. The shape of hopper bottom bins facilitates loading and unloading dry products. Watch the video below to see how these storage bins work.

Tanks like these hold liquid fertilizer.

Single bins like the one below are a common sight on smaller farms. They can hold many kinds of dry, flow-able products.

Hay storage

This hay hood keeps the hay door below dry while hay is being loaded. The cupola on top ensures moisture from the hay can vent to the outside.


photo courtesy Kurt Spingath, Eco-pak

A traditional, wooden hay barn is a familiar sight, but most hay grown in Washington does not stay in Washington. Washington supplies the world with hay and straw.

photo courtesy Blaine Calaway, Calaway Trading

Hay must be protected from moisture.  A common way is in covered, airy structures such as these half-round sheds seen along Hwy. I-90 near Ellensburg. Compared to steel buildings, these are more affordable and hold up better under snow.

Click on the picture below to learn how hay is stored and shipped

Throughout much of eastern Washington, hay stacked several feet high in the field is covered with heavy plastic tarps for storage until it is delivered to a buyer.


Photo courtesy of Bob Johnson, Inland Tarp and Cover Services

Silage storage then and now

Steel-paneled silo, Pierce County, c. 1935

Iconic blue Harvestore silos, Adams County,c.1948

Special plastic silage film c. 2015

What is silage?

Cut green vegetation is piled and fermented to be fed later to cattle as silage. This high-moisture fermenting process, converts the sugars in the plants into acids, somewhat like pickling. It must be firmly packed to minimize oxygen content, otherwise it will spoil. Silage is typically cut in the spring or late summer then stored to be fed year round. It becomes more digestible as it sits. Virtually all dairy cattle are fed silage. 

Historic Barns

Round barns like these in eastern Washington were promoted near the turn of the last century for efficiency of labor in managing livestock and feed. However, rectangular barns proved to be more compatible with mechanized farming and popularity dropped off.

Dahlman Farm barn stored feed and housed livestock in 1948. Today it is a center for art.

Learn why barns were often painted red.

Barn roofs provide excellent surfaces for collecting solar energy. 

Aimee S. and Kiki 

Old barns hold many happy memories as special places of friendship.