Built for the Future

December 6, 2013 06:26 PM
Built for the Future

Top tips to design a grain system for longevity

There’s been a surge in on-farm grain storage investments since 2009 when the wet harvest
exposed the weak links in grain systems across the country. Add in the increase in farm size and larger-capacity combines, and farmers have multiple reasons to update and upgrade their grain systems with the bigger picture in mind. Here are some of the top trends and lessons with on-farm storage.

Farmers have learned the hard way that commercial storage can’t serve as a backup if their unloading and drying systems are maxed out.

"There has been a lot of consolidation of the smaller co-ops," says Glenn Andler, general manager at Vita Builders in Fall River, Wis. "I had a farmer invest in a grain system because he wanted to control when he dumped his grain. But it’s important to know that increasing your unloading leads to drying, which ripples to storage. With higher yields, a farmer will need a bigger dryer and bigger leg. Without long-range planning, the cost of a do-over could outweigh doing it right the first time."

That reality is encouraging farmers to make a greater investment in planning and budgeting each aspect in order to build a grain system that is sufficient for many seasons to come.

Handling system. "It’s a matter of volume and a matter of capacity," says Charles Hurburgh, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State. "In many cases, handling systems were updated in response to the bottlenecks because it took too long to unload wagons. Some of the investments in handling equipment were to make capacities just plain bigger. For example, a farmer may install a 5,000-bu.-per-hour leg instead of 3,000 bu. per hour."

Based on information from Kansas State University, once the system’s capacity exceeds 100,000 bu., a leg should be part of the system to handle, blend and turn grain.

The capacity of your handling equipment should be based on the unloading times of your grain trucks. A 1,000-bu. semi unloading in 10 minutes needs to be matched with handling equipment that has a minimum capacity of 6,000 bu. per hour.

If using a pit, then the unloading time is based on the expected time between loads. Changing the unloading time from 10 to 15 minutes reduces the handling equipment capacity from 6,000 bu. per hour to 4,000 bu. per hour. A new facility using a bucket elevator should have a minimum capacity of 5,000 bu. per hour.

Drying capacity. "Investments have been in handling and then drying capacity. Bin space is easy to put up. What farmers have been focused on is getting the trucks and wagons back to the field. In general, we’ve found out that it’s fairly easy to outrun the capabilities of drying systems," Hurburgh says. "It used to be that 50,000 bu. to 70,000 bu. in storage was the cut range between a bin dryer and a centralized handling system with a continuous dryer. That wisdom isn’t too far off still, but as long as we didn’t have to dry much, it really didn’t matter."

He notes that previous high-moisture harvests have also been high-volume and high-yielding years. All of those factors at once created the insufficient drying capabilities.

"For a lot of producers, if you have to do much significant drying, the continuous dryer is the way to go," Hurburgh says. "There are many shapes, forms and sizes of continuous dryers to best fit a system." 

High-temperature dryers should have a separate smaller leg or auger for loading and unloading. As a rule of thumb, experts at Kansas State University say each time grain is transferred between handling equipment, the second piece of equipment should have 10% to 25% higher capacity than the first. Holding tank capacity ahead of a dryer or cleaner should equal two to four hours of combine harvesting capacity.

Budget. Although drying is a priority to improve throughput, it’s often the first thing chopped from a budget.

"You can always add a second wet bin," says Earl Horst, who installs grain systems in Ontario. "You can’t dry more than your capacity."

If farmers run at 40% capacity today, they’ll find themselves outrunning their dryer sooner than they think. Horst advises farmers to think that in four years they very well could double their drying needs.

 "The dryer is always the problem because farmers think they can make do without, and it’s expensive," Horst explains. "But for us, we always have to dry corn. And the timing of corn harvest is all about reality."

According to University of Minnesota Extension, the life expectancy is five to 10 years for fans and some types of conveyors, 10 to 20 years for dryers and 15 to 30 years for storage bins. It’s worth being patient and pragmatic in your grain storage planning.

Andler emphasizes the importance of designing a system to be expandable in the future and not painting yourself into a corner. "Farmers know this is a long-term investment," Andler says. "There’s a balance between what they need and what they want."

One approach to budget for a grain system is to bid the system based on a farmer’s operation today. Then discuss growth options five, 10 and 15 years down the road and bid another system based on that. Using those two numbers, the conversation can focus on negotiable features and expenses, plus what can be added in the future.

System monitor. Central grain systems and bigger bins mean a larger concentration of your grain, inventory and money. "Farmers don’t want to buy something that will be undersized, and a 100,000 bu. bin isn’t uncommon anymore. To better protect grain, I recommend five temperature cables arranged like a five on a dice, in a bin that size. It may cost a few thousand dollars more, but with bins that large, you can’t tell the conditions by probing or sniffing the air," Hurburgh says.

Monitoring systems significantly increase the ability to manage potential grain damage.

"The key piece of information is to be able to read the grain temperatures because that is the big factor in shelf life," Hurburgh continues.

With advanced controls and monitoring systems, farmers can stay up to speed with their storage system, even while on the go.

The future. "Don’t cut corners with grain storage, especially in how harvest 2013 has shaped up," Hurburgh says. "In building bins, I advocate that farmers put a fan in the roof to pull in
1.5 times the amount of air as the fans in the bottom. This will eliminate condensation from forming on the inside of the bins."

As farmers have built for improved throughput, many have made security a priority, such as blocks on ladders and camera monitoring systems. 

You can e-mail Margy Eckelkamp at meckelkamp@farmjournal.com.

(Click the picture to view larger PDF version.)

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