Permanent steel grain bins to hold every bushel of crop produced would be a great thing, but as producers contacted for this month’s farmer panel point out, there is an ugly and pervasive reality in agriculture: sometimes (often) the economics just aren’t there.
With permanent bins costing about $3 per bushel, depending on size and features, compared to some temporary or portable storage systems, which cost less than 40 cents per bushel, it isn’t hard for producers to pencil out which way to go.
So what are temporary or portable grain storage options? Put it in a bag. Unload in an old barn. Pile it on the ground or in a ring with a tarp cover. All can serve as relatively low cost solutions.
This month’s panel members farm on different scales, but both find the portable grain storage rings meet their needs for preserving grain quality at a reasonable price.
SANDRA ROBERTSON CARLYLE, SASK.
Portable grain storage has been an effective option for Sandra Robertson to grow her farming operation over the past 10 years, while keeping capital costs in check. Robertson has increased cropped acres from 800 to 4,800 acres over the past decade. She has about 100,000 bushels of steel permanent storage bins, but also has another 140,000-bushel capacity in portable storage.
Over the past six years she has put her increased crop production in 14 Willwood Industries steel rings. Eight of them are 45-foot diameter rings that hold about 10,000 bushels each. The rest are 39-foot rings that hold about 6,500 bushels each.
“If someone could guarantee me that feed barley would always be worth $3 per bushel, I would jump at more permanent storage bins in a minute,” she says. “But they can’t. I went for portable storage because I can’t see where I get a dollar back buying steel bins when oats are only $2 and sometimes as low as $1 per bushel.”
The initial cost of a 45-foot ring with tarp is about 39 cents per bushel, and she’s used some of the same rings for the past six years.
While Robertson estimates that managing grain in and out of steel rings probably takes about one-third more time and labour than permanent storage, she also says there is a certain value in having the flexibility that portable storage rings offer.
With grain, field peas and canola acres located over a 10-mile radius, she says there are times when it makes sense to move the grain rings to where the crop is being combined. “As we all know, at harvest, time is everything,” says Robertson. “If I can move a ring five miles down the road to where we are combining, that saves hauling time, and if I have a custom combine working 10 miles away, I can move rings to that field rather than pay him to haul grain back to the yard.”
Robertson is careful about preparing rings for storage and properly managing the grain that goes in those rings. Her sons are handy with a Bobcat loader to scrape all grass off the site where the ring is located. They also apply a burn off herbicide before any grain goes in to keep grass from growing inside the ring.
All grain that goes in the ring (or in permanent storage) in fall is treated with an insecticide to control any grain storage pests, and as soon as the ring is full, the protective tarp goes on. She wants to keep rain and snow off the pile and keep roaming deer out.
“If you look after it, the quality is excellent,” she says. “I have sold plenty of malt barley out of those rings, but that’s because it is looked after. And I don’t want to haul any grain to the elevator that has deer droppings in it. That would be too embarrassing.”
Having well-protected, good quality grain in portable storage also serves as a marketing tool, providing Robertson the option to hold grain in storage until the right or at least a better grain price comes along.
Robertson says grain bagging is an option, too. But either buying or renting necessary equipment to fill and unload bags is a cost too, and she just doesn’t like the idea of rolling up an $800 used plastic bag and taking it to the dump.
WALTER KASTEN IRMA, ALTA.
Although he only has a relatively small land base in today’s terms, Walter Kasten, who farms at Irma in east-central Alberta, says it always seems like he is 10,000 bushels short of grain storage capacity.
While Kasten, who crops about 750 acres of grain and oilseeds just west of Wainwright, says he has tried “every conceivable” temporary grain storage option over the past few years, he figures the best solution is the Behlen Crop Circle he bought last year. It is a two-foot high, corrugated steel ring, 50 feet in diameter. “It is fairly cheap, in terms of cents per bushel, as opposed to dollars per bushel,” says Kasten. “And it holds an awful pile of grain.”
Over the years Kasten has stored grain on the ground, and on the ground inside a circle of square bales, and in an old barn built in the 1930s. “The old barn works except for the fact the only way to get that grain out is to develop an intimate relationship with the stupid end of a grain shovel,” he says. “Aside from being a lot of work, and being inside with the dust, if you farm alone, you eventually look out the door and discover there is grain on the ground because as you’ve been shoveling it into the auger the truck is full and overflowing. It is not a good situation. I think old barns are best used for firewood.”
Kasten used the grain ring last year, but he hopes to make a few refinements to the set up for the fall of 2009. Since the main risk of moisture is coming up from the ground, he plans to set the ring on a “cheap and dirty” plywood base.
He may even go a step further and dig some shallow trenches in the ground before laying down the plywood, and drill some holes in the plywood over the trenches. The next step is to connect an aeration fan to the trench and circulate air through the piled grain.
“Usually the grain I am putting in a pile is a bit tough anyway, so if I can circulate a bit of air through the pile, it should prevent it from heating,” he says. “It may take a bit of farmer ingenuity to make it all work, but I think it is possible.”
Although he uses a tarp cover for the piled grain, the only other addition he plans is to build an eight-foot-high fence around the “crop circle.”
“The tarp keeps the rain and snow off the pile, but the only two things that can ruin the tarp are deer that try and climb up the pile, and snowmobilers who think the pile makes a great jump,” he says. “So if I can get it fenced, it should solve both those problems.”
“Permanent storage would be nice to have, but as a small farmer who has to constantly decide between things I would like and things I desperately need, I just can’t afford more bins,” he says.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]