What are those doors at the top of a barn for?

When I was in college, I remember going on a walk through campus with some of my friends who did not grow up in rural areas. We walked past the horse barn on Iowa State’s campus, and one friend made a comment that he had thought it was a door for airplanes to fly out of and still didn’t know what they were for.

Barn at Norman Borlaug Childhood Home

You know, I feel like I also remember seeing something showing an airplane flying out of a barn, but to this day, I still can’t put my finger on it. Maybe Stuart Little flew his airplane out of a barn once? But even if it’s just a trick of our memories, that is, in fact, not what the doors are for.

Older barns have two stories. The main level of the barn housed livestock and potentially some equipment. The upper level was the hayloft (also sometimes called a hay mow depending on who and where you are). There, farmers would store hay to feed the animals below, or straw to use as bedding for the animals. (Hay has more leaves and nutritional value, whereas straw is more stemmy and provides very little nutritional value, but both can be stored similarly.)

If you look closely, you can see the track at the peak in the roof in front of the door – this would have helped haul hay.

But why the door to the outside from the second level? To get the hay inside!

Before more mechanization happened on farms, hay would be pulled up from the ground using a series of pulleys on a track attached at the peak in front of the hay mow door. Someone would need to stand at the ground level to load hay onto a fork or claw attached to the pulley system, another person would be in the hayloft to stack the hay properly, and a third would be outside the barn with a workhorse (or a tractor later on) that would be the force of the entire pulley system. To see a really great video on this process, check out this one from some folks in Fairfield, IA.

As more mechanization came later, conveyor belts or hay elevators could be used to carry hay up to the door instead of using pulleys. Here’s a video showing a hay elevator hauling hay bales to a hayloft.

With hay stored in the building where the animals lived, it was then easier for farmers to climb into the hayloft and simply toss down the hay needed to feed their animals and not haul it in from elsewhere.

Barns with these features are today largely a relic of the past. As farms became more specialized and less diversified, farmers would create larger, specialized barns for their livestock with more modern technologies. And with more animals to feed, the hayloft became a bit too small for what was needed.

Today, a dairy farm might have a large feed shed with bunkers for each ingredient the cattle need. A tractor or even a robot might measure those ingredients, mix them together, and deliver them to the livestock barn for distribution.

So, no, the doors on barns aren’t for airplanes to fly out of. But if you can think of the cartoon that showed that, please let me know.


One thought on “What are those doors at the top of a barn for?

  1. Pingback: What are those doors at the top of a barn for? — Iowa Agriculture Literacy | Vermont Folk Troth

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