A watched pot never boils, but a grain bin might. That is, if you lack proper monitoring tools. There is more than a modicum of truth in this statement when applied to grain storage best practices.
As many Canadian farmers experience “one-off” weather events almost annually, these occurrences continue to underscore a shift in farm management. Smoke shrouded skies are increasingly prevalent, thanks to larger and more frequent forest fires, and lead to maturation delays. Also, early killing frosts and callously timed snow and rain all work against farmers and result in tough grain.
There are a few options to deal with this problem — grain dryers, aeration fans, propane heaters and bin cables — and they continue to see upticks in business due to meteorological havoc. It’s bin cables, though, that continue to prove their value to farmers forced to auger tough and moist crops into their bins come harvest time.
Bin cables have been around for decades and are relatively straightforward to use. However, the convenience factor cannot be understated as the technology improves. With direct alerts straight to smart phones and desktops, temperature and moisture may be controlled with a few quick finger taps, whether a farmer is standing in a yard or enjoying a holiday 2,500 kilometres away.
PROTECT MARKETABLE GRAIN
Scott Bolt operates Bolt Seed Farm at Wynyard, SK, and has 780,000 bushels of grain storage spread across 100 bins. When you farm 15,000 acres, as Bolt does, individual bin checking is not an option. When Bolt had heating issues after he upgraded to bigger bins, he opted for a Bin-Sense system from IntraGrain Technologies, which makes wireless grain monitoring equipment including cables and fan controllers.
Nolan Curts, an employee with Fahlman Acres, near Holdfast, SK, works to secure an IntraGrain Technologies’ temperature cable inside one of the farms’ grain bins.
“The biggest part is peace of mind,” he says. “You can go away and not have to worry if somebody checks them or not. ” Bolt receives anywhere from 30 to 70 texts a day from his automated system linked to his pre-set limits on temperature. He does not mind the flurry of messages because he enjoys seeing the grain’s status changing, even if it’s hour to hour.
Since outfitting every bin with at least one cable, Bolt estimates he’s paid between $100,000 to $120,000, a big number to be sure, but not as big as one of his 40,000-bushel bins suffering insurmountable losses due to spoilage.
Last year, for instance, he was forced to bin canola at 16 per cent moisture and, sure enough, it started to heat up. Luckily, the cables shot him a timely warning. “We ended up with little to nothing heated, whereas if we waited another three days to check it or turn it, it could have been 50 or 100 per cent heated,” says Bolt. “One or two per cent is easy to market, 50 per cent and you take quite a hit.”
He is grateful for the time, effort and money saved through his system. No more 80-kilometre round trips to yard sites and, at a cost of about seven cents per bushel, the cables have proven their worth over and over.
Stories like this make Joy Agnew happy. VP of applied research at Olds College, Agnew has spent her entire career in agricultural research and development and knows first-hand the benefits of monitoring systems. “When you crunch the numbers in sensors, even advanced sensors’ wireless connectivity, it’s cents per bushel when amortized over its life expectancy,” she says. “These cables can basically be an insurance policy.”
Agnew does warn, though, that it’s not possible to effectively blow air in bins with a depth greater than 25 feet, and the ability to manage these bins in general also lessens. Hotspots can be as close as one foot away from a sensor and go undetected, Agnew says, meaning that in the average bin, a farmer truly monitors one to five per cent of the entire bin. “It sounds terrible, but it’s infinitely better than zero,” she says. “It’s way, way better than not monitoring.”
And she points to the fact that with cable monitoring, there are cost savings (currently being quantified by ongoing research) since fans don’t necessarily need to run all night, or even all day, because they can be automated to turn on and off the moment tough grain hits a farmer’s desired temperature.
GOOD DECISIONS REQUIRE GOOD INFORMATION
Monitoring is simply about proper grain management, says Tanner Folk, CEO of IntraGrain Technologies, based in Regina, SK.
The Bin-Sense master unit communicates data from grain storage over cellular networks straight to farmers’ phones, where timely decisions for proper temperature management can be made.
He notes the hard work that goes into managing a crop from start to finish and believes it’s logical to monitor it at what is arguably its most crucial and longest stage — on-farm storage. “All the work that goes into putting that grain into your bins and then having the ability to monitor it from anywhere is valuable,” he says. “Early identification of factors that could lead to spoilage allows producers to prevent or minimize losses.”
Folk says, the company aims to push relevant information to farmers’ phones, and what they do with it is entirely dependent on their operation and storage goals. “Alerts give them the data required to make intelligent decisions to preserve quality of their stored grain,” he says. “They’re in control of the outputs and there are measures they can choose to manage the heat and moisture.”
As the technology becomes ubiquitous across the country, researchers behind the scenes continue to push the limits of grain storage solutions. Pre-commercial studies are underway to examine the potential of pellet-like sensors which could be tossed into a bin — thousands of them, perhaps — to monitor temperature and provide a much more informed average of grain temperatures. Agnew says 3D scanning systems are a recent innovation, now commercially available to farmers, for a more accurate moisture map within a bin.
Don’t forget the dryer
Bin cables are great, but there is yet another critical grain storage management tool that has become increasingly popular: the grain dryer. A linear increase in the popularity of grain dryers coincided with the horrible harvest of 2016 that decimated thousands of farms’ crops across Western Canada.
Jayde Klassen works in dryer sales and service at Wentworth AG in Winkler, MB, and has seen first-hand the dramatic rise in esteem for dryers. “In 2015, probably 40 per cent of prairie farmers had a dryer,” he says. “Today, that number is around 60 per cent.”
He says dryers are amazing tools that often pay for themselves in one season, but there are five vital considerations needing a farmer’s “STAMP” of approval before jumping into the fray:
STORAGE: Klassen says farmers should at least have bin space to match daily bushels that are combined into wet storage, and from wet storage to dry storage. If farmers harvest 10,000 bushels a day, they will need that many, or more, of available wet storage.
TIMELINE: Interested in a dryer for this year’s harvest? It’s almost too late. Klassen says demand has steadily hovered in the six-monthplus window, so start thinking 2021. Inspectors, technicians, electricians and dryer companies all need time to fulfill orders.
AUGERS: Augers have been extremely popular lately — to the point where some dealers are scarcely supplied. It is a non-negotiable, you need augers to run a dryer.
MONEY: Farmers should earmark at least $250,000 for a mid-sized setup capable of drying 400 to 500 bushels per hour. This includes the dryer, wet and dry bins, a concrete pad, protective barricades, power, fuel and labour, says Klassen.
POWER: Will it be single-phase or three-phase power? Or perhaps someone thinks a portable gen-set is the solution. When it comes to fuel, will it be propane or natural gas? For gas, map it out in advance — literally. Trenching costs alone to bring a natural gas line with the proper BTUs into a yard can top $100,000. Klassen says 80 per cent of customers run single-phase with propane due to its quick-and-easy setup. However, three-phase paired with natural gas is the cheapest option for both power and fuel long-term.