After purchasing a new farm that didn't have a barn, we were in need of an immediate hay storage solution. The first winter we used a single open bay in a three-bay shed located at the far edge of our property. We hung tarps over the entrance to block rain and wind. Still, the hay in front occasionally got wet, and we battled varmints that found the hay to be a great nesting ground. Since we had limited storage in this single bay, we had to purchase hay when we could find it, driving the price up later in the season and the quality of the hay down. That also meant multiple hay hauling and stacking days, which did not fit in with our new "make it simpler" chore-tackling philosophy.
The second winter arrived. We were still recovering from our move and still not in a position to build our new dream barn. Mining all of our friends for ideas and information turned up a great solution for us. A friend suggested using a cargo container for hay storage. This proved to be the perfect solution to our dilemma. However, since purchasing a cargo container is still a significant investment (ours ran $2,000 plus a $200 delivery charge for a 9'6" high and 40-foot-long version that was available in our area), we did our homework on the pros and cons of this idea. Here's what we found.
Pros of Using Cargo Containers
We found many positive aspects associated with storing hay or other perishable items in cargo containers. Some pros pertained to the containers themselves:
• They're nearly airtight and waterproof.
• They're wind resistant.
• They're animal proof.
• Volume storage is possible, depending on the size of container you get.
• They're low maintenance.
• It's easy to load and unload hay as you need it (e.g., no need to walk on pallets).
• They're fun to paint and personalize.
Some of the pros pertained to business/management aspects of owning a farm:
• Storing hay away from the horse barn lowers fire insurance rates.
• Cargo containers are inexpensive compared with some other options.
• Containers are available in most areas.
• They can stand alone or be tied in to existing outbuildings.
• They have multiple other uses on the farm if your needs change.
• They can go with you to your next farm or be sold to a dealer who will pick them up.
Finally, some of the pros pertained to horse health issues:
• Horses can't accidentally get into the hay, so you avoid founder/colic risks.
• Horses are safer away from the possible fire hazard of hay stored in the barn.
• Since using cargo containers eliminates hay dust in the barn or riding areas, this is healthier for both horses and people.
Cons of Using Cargo Containers
The negative aspects we've encountered with our cargo containers generally relate to their size and weight:
• Cargo containers aren't easy to move once they're placed.
• It can be a bit difficult to open the door.
• Our containers were used, so they had commercial graphics with peeling paint.
• Containers may not be permitted in some restricted zoning areas.
• There's usually no built-in lighting.
• They require a level site, so you may need some preparation time.
All containers have VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) information that you can use to find out the age of the unit. Most used containers for sale will be between 10 and 14 years old. Prices go down as age goes up, but ask about the condition of the container. Most commercial companies will guarantee that the containers they sell won't leak, but they may have some dents or patched areas.
Be sure to get a "high cube" container. That puts the "ceiling" height at 9'6"-this gives you more head room and stacking room. The standard height for cargo containers is 8'6". Our high cube, 40-foot-long container holds 400 plus square bales of hay and weighs 7,500 pounds empty. Containers are available in lengths ranging from 10 feet to 53 feet, though the 10-footers are rare.
Ask what the container you are considering buying was used for. Find out what it actually contained in the past before you consider putting hay or edible things in it. Many of these containers were used to ship food goods for human consumption, so they're perfectly safe for your horse's food goods.
Most important: shop around. Ebay almost always has cargo containers listed, as do other online auction services. You can also run an online search on "cargo containers" and get free quotes from several commercial cargo container sellers. Be sure to ask about shipping charges, as they are usually factored in separately.
Delivery Preparation Tips
Find a level site on your property that is accessible to an 18-wheeler delivery truck. Remove anything that is in the way and be ready before the delivery person arrives. They usually don't want to wait and you only get one chance to place the container where you want it. Consider your neighbors and any required zoning setbacks when you determine placement.
After you've determined that the container arrived as promised and doesn't leak, you might want to find a local art student to prime it, paint it, and add your farm logo or a mural of your favorite horses. Projects like this often can be arranged as part cash payment from you and part school credit. Priming is an important no-skip step, though, as many containers have been exposed to salt water from ocean shipping. Don't let this deter you, as they're usually also galvanized with zinc prior to being put into service to protect them from corrosion (see information on Maersk.com).
We created additional storage for our tractor by running our container parallel to our shed and adding metal roofing between the two structures. As you get ready for your delivery, plan for add-ons like this that you may want to take advantage of, either now or later on.
More on Cost
According to buyerzone.com, you can save 30% to 50% by buying used cargo containers. Prices fluctuate according to supply and demand, but at the time I wrote this article, several used 40-foot-long, high cube containers were available in the $2,500 to $2,700 range (plus delivery costs). New containers begin at about $4,000, but these offer many more customization options than when you buy used. You can also rent or lease containers from some suppliers, and any needed maintenance is included.
Here are some sources for price quotes on cargo containers:
Our Favorite Hay Container Advantage
As is true for all horse owners, we want to use as much of our hay as possible with the least amount of spoilage. We found that there are small vents near the tops of the containers in front and in back. Venting allows for adequate air circulation for the stored hay, which should reduce spoilage. We've stored hay on pallets in the containers, as well as directly on the floor, and have found no difference in the condition of the hay. Not having to use pallets is a big plus when you're pulling hay from the very end of the container-nothing to trip over or try to walk on. Most container floors are plywood, though some are steel.
Alternative Uses for Containers
While cargo containers work great for hay storage, they're also pretty versatile units. Here are some other options for use:
• Tack room (may need to add climate-control features or purchase a new or used container with those elements installed)
• Farm office (easy to construct by adding windows, doors, and electric)
• Grain storage (again, check on prior use for used containers and see about climate-control options)
• Inexpensive housing (modifications are needed; you also can combine two or more containers-check your local zoning restrictions, as well)
• Fall-out shelter/tornado shelter (you can bury the container underground)
The design potential of cargo containers has recently been "discovered" by the home design and construction industry. Containers have been incorporated as rooms and hallways in modern home plans. One fellow even cut the top off a cargo container, buried it in the ground, and used it for a swimming pool!
Depending on your needs, these versatile metal boxes may be just right for you also. We've found great uses for ours and haven't regretted our purchase yet!