Are Grain Bags Worth It?

Five tips for using grain bags

With all good things come some drawbacks. The two most common drawbacks with grain bags are the handling and management of the bag in winter and management of the bags in terms of wildlife damage.

TIPS FOR WINTER HANDLING OF GRAIN BAGS

Place the bag in the field on higher ground. If it is in a lower area, you risk getting some moisture into the bag.

Place the bag in the field where access in the winter with snow removal will be as easy as possible.

If you haven’t purchased an extractor yet, models with the wheels on the inside are easier to use when unloading in the snow.

Some producers prefer to shovel off the tops of the bags to remove excess snow.

After blowing the snow out around the bag, attach a round bale to the front of the tractor and use it to “sweep” away the snow that is up close to the bag. This may be a way to get up close to the bag without ripping it and may be an alternative to shovelling it out by hand.

SIX TIPS FOR DECREASING DAMAGE FROM WILDLIFE

It is important to clean up any small spills or repair small rips in the bag.

If at all possible place the bags in areas where there is more traffic. Wildlife will stay away from these bags more so than those in a remote area of a field.

To prevent deer being a problem, place a couple pallets at each end of the bag. They work like Texas gates to stop them from walking up on top of the bag. The deer will try to poke holes on the top or sides of the bag.

Coyotes seem to be attracted to canola bags and in some cases have been found to rip open the tops of the bags.

Elk can be a nuisance in wheat bags. Once the elk get into a bag it is virtually impossible to get them out by using scare tactics.

Mice don’t seem to be much of an issue, but it was mentioned that placing a ring of kerosene on the ground around the bag will stop the mice if they are a problem.

There are human pests, too. Especially those on snowmobiles. Placing markers or coloured tape along the bag is one option to increase visibility, but that won’t repel the bad apples out to spoil the bunch.

Grain bags are a common sight in many parts of the Prairies, and now that farmers have had a few years of experience with them, definite pros and cons have emerged.

These poly bags have found favour with many farmers, especially those with a lack of permanent bin storage space, a lack of available labour during harvest or fluctuating amounts of crop produced either from changing land base or crop decisions. Not everyone, however, is thrilled with grain bags — some have lost a lot of crop to spoilage, largely brought on because of deer and birds breaking into the bags.

It’s become clear that there are lessons to be learned in order to make them a useful addition to permanent bin storage.

A GOOD SHORT-TERM SOLUTION

It is easy to see the benefits of how grain bags can fit into a grain operation. They are an excellent source of temporary storage for those years that we get a bin-busting crop. Big, bulky crops, such as oats, might be in rotation only once in three or four years, requiring too much bin space, however there is often money to be made if you can delay selling until later in the crop year.

For all of those farmers who have used both grain bags as well as placed their grain into piles on the ground, the benefits are obvious. Rick Moule farms near Yellow Grass, Sask., and has seen a definite advantage over storing grain in piles. Grain in bags maintains its grade, has fewer insect problems and doesn’t heat as much as grain stored in piles, according to Moule.

Although Moule would rather have hopper bins, bags worked well last harvest when above-average yields pushed their infrastructure to the max. Bags are filled wherever you need them, eliminating the need for trucks and manpower to move everything back to the yard site.

Moule also sees a fit for grain bags on rented land that lacks storage or is too far from home base. Being set up for bags allows farmers to look at rented land that may be a distance from their home farm. Few farmers are able or willing to increase their capital costs of bins based on rented land that may fluctuate dependent on the re-signing of rental contracts.

WHAT ABOUT TOUGH GRAIN?

Once the grain is bagged and sealed, available oxygen is consumed preventing the development of fungi and insects which are very often a problem with grain stored in a pile. Ed Cawkwell, who farms near Kelvington, Sask., sees grain bags as a critical management practice which “saved the farm for them in 2009.” Last harvest was full of challenges and managing tough grain was a major concern for his farm. He’s had success with bagging higher-moisture grain and it maintains its quality in the bags until unloading through the winter and spring. Grain bags were the only place where he could put his tough grain this year, making them a godsend for his operation.

When labour is tight, grain bags really shine. Both Moule and Cawkwell agree that this is one of the best merits of grain bags. Finding the labour to keep the combines rolling and the trucks moving is difficult if not unrealistic in some areas. “(Grain bags) are handy and a fantastic idea for harvest management,” says Moule, “they are just a little harder to deal with when unloading in the snow through the winter.” Some farmers have mentioned that its necessary to clear the snow from beside each bag before unloading: not an easy task if the bag is tough to get to. Still, it’s not much different than having to clear out yard sites before trucking.

THE ECONOMICS

Grain bags do work and have their place, but what is the true cost of using grain bags? How does it compare to other forms of permanent storage? Bags are often chosen as a cheaper option than putting up bins, but if you’re only looking at the initial purchase cost that may be true. One way that our farm looks at it is a comparison of all capital costs, be it large fixed flat-bottom bins, smaller hopper, bottom bins, as well as the cost of the bagger, extractor, and cost of the plastic bag, including depreciation over a period of time. Including all of these costs over a long period of time may change the perception that grain bags are the cheapest form of storage. By the 25 year mark, large bins (over 5,000 bushels) actually pencil out as the more affordable storage option at $0.15 per bushel (annually). Grain bags and the cost of the extractor end up costing about what 5,000 bu or smaller hopper bottoms cost — approximately $0.21 per bushel per year.

Each operation makes decisions on what works for them depending on amount of capital costs they can afford or justify, acres farmed, available labour and level of risk that they are comfortable with. Moule looks at grain bags as a good alternative for the top 10 per cent of their production each year. He also sees a fit with them to handle bulky crops such as oats and to deal with years that they obtain above-average yields. Cawkwell, on the other hand, has decided to embrace grain bag storage as an integral portion of his total grain storage, estimating that they plan on putting two-thirds of their production into bags rather than bins.

Most farmers agree on the benefit of using bags in comparison to piling the product on the ground. Quality concerns can be addressed much easier in bags than in a pile, but bins, especially with aeration, are the gold standard for managing quality. Cawkwell recommends periodic sampling of the bags to determine any changes in quality. They have found that using an eight-foot temperature probe obtains a fairly representative sample to monitor the grain through the winter.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE PLASTIC BAGS

Perhaps the biggest drawback with grain bags is the bag itself. What do you do when you’re done with them? Each year a huge amount of plastic is used then needs to be disposed of. The Plastics Place (TPP) in Alberta is attempting to recycle these grain bags to turn them into plastic pellets. They prefer bags be as clean and dry as possible and co-ordinate collection in localized areas.

There are collection days and sites that have been beginning to be organized throughout Saskatchewan by Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture. Realistically though, these bags are cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre and transport. With the bags weighing somewhere in the neighbourhood of 270 pounds dry and clean, transporting the bags to a recycling collection spot has its issues. Even though the recycling programs are inconvenient, it still should be done.

With co-ordination between producers, recycling companies and transportation everyone can strive to make this program work. We all know that a voluntary program for recycling grain bags would be more beneficial and less cost prohibitive than a legislated program.

Bobbie Bratrud farms with her husband Mark near Weyburn, Sask. They also run Bratrud Ag Advisory Services (www.bratrudag.ca).

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