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When a grain silo collapses

This silo collapse raises the question: Do you know what your first step would be in the event of major building failure?

On November 1 last year, when Martin and Teresa Van Raay’s 100-foot-tall steel silo smashed to the ground, it set off a flurry of activity that involved their suppliers, friends and fellow farmers.

In the end, it reinforced their faith in their community’s ability to come together at a time of crisis, but that’s not to say they didn’t learn some lessons and generate some suggestions for their fellow farmers.

The Van Raays farm hogs and garlic with their sons Dean and Philip near Dashwood in Ontario’s Huron County, and the big blue silo had towered over their large finishing barn at a farm just south of Hwy. 83 for years.

The Van Raay family.
photo: Supplied

It turns out it was the driver of their whey delivery truck who was the first to notice that the silo was leaning, with sheets of steel on one side crumpling like an accordion. That led to a 12-hour vigil as the Van Raays worried about the short- and long-term ramifications for the 3,500 pigs in the barn, their business, and the safety of people.

There were a lot of questions, says Dean. “Which way was it going to fall? How long was it going to be? What problems were we going to have to solve if it came down on the barn? What about the pigs? What about power? What’s going to be the new plan?”

The silo as it showed signs of weakening before it collapsed hours later.
photo: Supplied

Silos are stoic fixtures on farms. They are no longer as popular an option for storage, however, and as a result many are getting older. They have been known to come down, especially the steel silos.

Thankfully, the silo came down early in the morning, while no one was around and it came down away from the barn, catching only the feed room, which was destroyed. No pigs were harmed and the barn itself was undamaged. The pigs could be fed and cared for, although getting in feed was an immediate challenge.

“You were kind of relieved it fell, but not really,” says Teresa.

The sight of 1,500 tonnes of corn on the ground was daunting. Once the silo was down, the hard work began and the community jumped in to help.

“It was a disaster,” says Martin. “But people calm down and get things done.”

Before 7 a.m., they had plans in place and neighbours soon arrived with loaders, trucks, wagons, grain vacuums and shovels to clean up the corn.

“We were not afraid to take help and it did work like clockwork,” says Teresa. The friends who responded were farmers, so they knew how to work the equipment and how to run the cleanup.

Cleaning up the spilled corn after the silo collapsed.
photo: Supplied

The Van Raays also had some good fortune on their side. There were no gas leaks or explosions. Power wasn’t severed, although they had to shut off water due to a leak.

The weather also held for three days after and allowed them to salvage a lot of the corn. The high-moisture corn was only recently harvested and put into the silo, so they were able to ship it to Hensall District Co-operative and Ondrejicka Elevators for drying and storage. Damaged corn ended up in a friend’s biogas digester.

One of the biggest challenges was how to get feed to the pigs. It meant the quick ordering and delivery of a storage tank. Their feed company Wallenstein Feed was on call to deliver them whatever feed was needed as soon as the new storage tank was up. They are currently using a complete feed with the destruction of the silo and the feed room. They didn’t lose one pig during this time.

Dean says the industry could look at some sort of emergency response line for such emergencies, where farmers could find the numbers they can call for certain resources.

Months later, the Van Raays are continuing to farm and looking to the future, but with grateful thoughts for the way their family and community responded to their emergency.

“We are blessed,” says Teresa.

How to prepare for a silo collapse

Know your insurance company. They need to give the go-ahead to take a lot of the actions in managing the collapsing silo and disposing of contents.

Make a list of contractors you’ll need to contact in case of emergency. Think of resources that aren’t normally part of your emergency contacts.

Do you know where to call for a grain vacuum in your area?

“Our community has those services around, but nobody thinks about it until they are needed,” says Teresa.

Keep your important contractors close. Some day you might need them, especially electricians, water well experts and engineers.

Let your local fire department know what is going on, even if you don’t need them right away. (Philip is on the local volunteer department and called the chief.)

Alway make sure your volunteer helpers are safe.

Don’t forget to feed your help and make them stop to eat. Dean recounts a story about boxes of pizza sitting uneaten until he carried them around to the workers and made them take some.

Remember to live life. The Van Raays said that they appreciated friends who took them out for dinner one evening and gave them a chance to get away from the overwhelming work around the silo collapse.

How are silos insured?

The Van Raays were surprised how little of their silo collapse was covered by their insurance policy.

Structural collapse is not usually covered by policies, although the contents will be covered.

Think of it like your tractor motor. If the motor fails after a normal amount of use, then it is not covered by any type of insurance policy.

It’s important that farmers have a good look at their policy, says Sue Baker, manager of insurance services with the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association (OMIA).

“Is it listed on the declarations page?” she asks. “There is some variance in how they lay out the products, and potentially some variety.”

Peter Maurer, an independent insurance adjuster handling the Van Raays’ claim for Usborne & Hibbert Mutual Fire Insurance Co., says that a broker might find an insurer in a city willing to cover silo collapse for a substantial premium, but few of those familiar with rural areas will do so, including farm mutual insurance companies.

In the case of blue steel silos, Maurer says, “there’s not any company that will give you collapse coverage if they’re being prudent.”

There may be some other ways to cover some risks on silos, such as snow load, but structural failure won’t likely be one of them, Maurer says, although he adds “There is always someone willing to insure. The amount of the premium, however, is also an issue.”

About the author

Field editor

John Greig

John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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