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Safer grain storage

Whether you’ve got enough storage space this year after last year’s bumper crop or you need temporary solutions, try these four tips

We were probably all expecting a tough harvest, despite hoping for the luxury of good weather and an open fall. Rain, frost and even snow in early September likely mean there will be an even greater need to ensure grain storage management strategies are well in hand.

“Just because you are done combining does not mean you are done managing the crop,” says Joy Agnew, an agricultural engineer and project manager of agricultural research services at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. “Grain requires regular monitoring while it is in storage to ensure it does not go out of condition — that is going to be the challenge from here on out.”

Considering the value of the inputs and the hours and months of time and effort put into producing the crop, this is good advice. But surprisingly, it is advice that is often not heeded as carefully as it should be.

1. Bring it in dry

Grain going into storage should ideally be binned clean and dry. It’s debatable if that will be entirely possible this fall, and if not there should also be the means to either dry the grain or to aerate the bin throughout the storage period and a plan in place to monitor the grain in the bin on a regular basis.

“Temperature cables are very popular and cost effective to monitor the temperature of the grain throughout the bin,” says Agnew. “The cables are put in place before the bin is filled and a reader hooked up on the outside provides a temperature profile of the grain in bin at any time.” This technology, like any other, is constantly advancing. Now there are wireless systems that will send email or text notifications when the temperature rises beyond pre-set limits.

For farmers harvesting damp or wet grain, there will be added work to ensure the grain does not degrade or spoil in storage. “Ideally grain should go into storage dry,” says Agnew. “If that is not possible, natural air drying with the right capacity fans, even under conditions of high humidity and low temperatures will draw off a lot of moisture. Any airflow through damp grain is beneficial.” Getting the grain cooled off is important to prevent any further degradation in quality. Turning grain in the fall or winter can have beneficial outcomes when it comes to mixing and cooling. Avoid turning grain in the spring when temperatures are on the rise.

2. Know your drying capability

“The next biggest misconception out there is the difference between aeration and natural air drying,” says Agnew. “Drying and cooling are very different and it’s critical farmers know this as there is a lot at stake if they don’t.”

Aeration is cooling only and is a valuable part of grain storage management. Natural air drying, on the other hand, will actually remove moisture from the grain but requires much higher airflows than aeration fans can typically provide. High capacity fans are required to dry grain in the bin. Aeration requires about 0.1 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of airflow per bushel. A 5,000 bushel bin would require about 500 cfm from fans to cool the grain.

Natural air drying requires at least 10 times that amount of air to dry grain in storage — one cfm per bushel of grain or 5,000 cfm for a 5,000 bushel bin. Aeration fans could never achieve those air flow rates. Moisture removal would be minimal and grain would spoil.

3. Know the limitations of bag storage

Because of winter logistics problems and the 2013 bumper harvest, many farmers may need temporary storage for their 2014 production. “Grain storage bags are quite popular with farmers in recent years,” says Agnew. “Bags offer a convenient storage option, however, they also require diligent management to ensure the grain is maintained in good condition over the storage period.”

Bags are prone to damage by wildlife so weekly monitoring is recommended just to check on the integrity of the bags. Additionally, fencing and signage is a good idea to prevent snowmobile accidents — white bags are very hard to see in the snow. The single biggest concern with bags is their integrity. They have much greater surface area that can be damaged that any other sort of storage available. Another drawback of bags is that there is no potential for air flow.

“Bags are only a temporary storage solution,” says Agnew. “The grain should not be stored longer than six to eight months, and it should be unloaded before the weather starts to warm up in the spring.” On the other hand, grain will cool down much faster in a bag than in a bin, depending on the prevailing air temperature.

“Take the time to prepare the site sufficiently for bag storage,” says Agnew. “You will have to access the area over the winter to check the bags and test the grain, and come spring, you will need to be able to access the bags to unload the grain. Grain should be stored in bags no more than six to eight months.” Additionally, it is advisable to orient the bags in a north-south direction so solar heating from the sun is equal, or roughly so, on either side of the bags. If not aligned this way, only one side of the bag heats in the sun. That may lead to moisture accumulation in the grain on the cooler side, which could cause spoilage.

When probing grain in bag storage, it’s important to probe the bags at the three o’clock or nine o’clock position, never at noon. The tension on the plastic is greatest at the noon position and there is greater risk of the bag tearing and the stored grain becoming compromised.

“It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that you should never put wet grain in bags,” advises Agnew. “Dry and cool the grain first. Ideally it should be one to two per cent drier than ‘dry’. You have to always remember there are no options for stored grain management once in the bag.”

For a lot of farmers, bag storage will not be a viable option this year, given restrictions to the state of the grain going into the bags and the lack of means to aerate or dry the grain in place.

4. Learn the tricks of ring or pile storage

Ring storage is another option to consider. Besides piling, ring storage is among the cheapest options for temporary storage. “Ring storage has a place in certain years,” says Agnew. “2014 is likely to produce a lot of wet or damp grain unless we get a prolonged period of favourable conditions. Provided some simple steps are taken when constructing the ring, it can be a successful strategy.” Finding a suitable location is important. Avoid low spots or areas where moisture could accumulate or run through and cause damage. Put ground sheets in place, and while it adds more cost, a cover sheet is recommended. “The natural cone shape that will form sheds water well,” says Agnew. “A crust will form on the surface and little other damage from precipitation should occur.”

One of the important considerations with ring stores or piles is once unloading starts, it needs to be fully completed. The cone shape is lost once the grain is disturbed and is more susceptible to spoilage.

A lot of time, worry and cash has gone into this years’ crop. Make sure it stays safe until it leaves the farm.

For safe storage guidelines by crop, visit the Canadian Grain Commission website.

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