Explore your options for heating and grain drying infrastructure

Experts advise farmers to consider the economics and benefits and to plan ahead, plus tips on airflow and spoilage prevention

Last year’s cold, wet harvest conditions proved a challenging test for many Prairie producers, both during harvest and once grain was in the bin. Even in a good year, effective fan technology is critical to successful storage. Last year, many farmers with heating and drying infrastructure and grain bin monitoring technologies were able to take advantage of extra return on investment.

It is advantageous for farmers to take a good, hard look at new or existing heating or drying infrastructure.

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Not surprisingly, farmers who have had the most experience with challenging harvests in the past tended to fare better than those who are used to getting into their fields in August for a comfortable harvest. Angela Brackenreed, Canola Council of Canada’s Manitoba agronomist, thinks southern farmers might do well to learn from their more northern farming neighbours.

“Producers who farm in southern latitudes tend to be not nearly as well set up (with heating and drying infrastructure) as those who farm in northern latitudes,” says Brackenreed. “I was in the Grande Prairie (Alberta) region and their attitude was: ‘We get it. We’re fully prepared for this because we’ve been there, done that, many times.’ In southern Manitoba, on the other hand, the difficult harvest was more of a mental shift.”

She recommends all farmers use the challenges of last year as motivation to consider investing in additional heating and drying infrastructure.

“I would encourage farm operators to at least consider the economics of (supplemental heating or drying) on their farms. Does having some capacity to dry in less-than-ideal drying conditions allow you to get crop off sooner, does it allow you to guarantee some level of quality, does it free up some resources because now you’re not waiting on moisture content to reach some goal? Does it free up some people power, some combining room? There’s no one solution for all farms, but I do think people should be looking at their options.”

If a heater/dryer could be in your short-term future, plan way ahead. Because demand was so high for heating and drying infrastructure last year, “most farmers couldn’t get a new dryer if they wanted it,” says Shawn Senko, CCC’s southern Saskatchewan agronomist. “You couldn’t find a dryer anywhere — everyone was sold out.”

Also, strict provincial regulations in some provinces — notably Manitoba — mean farmers need to plan for infrastructure improvements many months in advance. “You can’t decide you want a continuous dryer in the fall and have it that same fall,” says Brackenreed.

Check existing fans and airflow

While investing in additional heating or drying infrastructure may offer good returns on investment, ensuring your existing fans are working effectively is as critical. For natural air drying, airflow needs to be at least half a cubic foot per minute per bushel. When heat is added, ensure flow is at least one cubic foot per minute per bushel.

“With too low airflow rates with supplemental heat, you’re going to massively overdry the bottom and not even touch the top. You get the same effect, just not to the same degree, with natural drying,” says Brackenreed.

Admittedly, calculating static pressure is confusing, especially since resistance to airflow is influenced by multiple factors in a grain bin.

“The risk is you maybe weren’t set up adequately from the beginning, and airflow is not easy to measure. Secondly, moving to bigger and bigger bins, a lot of farms don’t have adequate power to have fans big enough to move adequate air,” says Brackenreed.

All fans have curve calculation charts that show airflow potential for different crops at different static pressures. Those charts can provide an estimation. Some gauges also now exist for testing actual airflow. At the very least, says Brackenreed, “get to the top of the bin and feel for airflow. It won’t tell you how much you’re getting, but at least you’ll know you’re getting some airflow.”

Farmers regularly ask her what one cubic foot per minute per bushel might feel like. She wishes she had a good answer. “It would be so handy to be able to say, ‘At this cubic foot per minute, your hat is going to blow off or at this cubic foot per minute, you’ll feel X.’ We don’t have that right now, but maybe that’s something we’ll get to in the future.”

Watch for spoilage

Despite the most careful heating, drying and cooling, farmers must always be on the lookout for spoilage. In addition to hands-on bin checking, monitoring cables can be an effective tool. Currently, no official statistics exist on how many producers rely on cables. However, Senko estimates that it is still an underutilized technology.

“Lots of people, probably most people, don’t have cabling in their bins. As long as the cables are in good working order — secured well in the right place and not loose or swinging to the side — they can be very effective. They’re certainly a worthwhile investment.”

However, although you’re much less likely to lose a cabled bin, canola’s excellent insulating capacity means a hot spot can get going before it gets picked up by the cable. As such, checking and turning is necessary even with cables in place. In the absence of cables, regularly turning a bin in the earliest stages of storage is even more critical.

While we can cross our fingers that harvest 2019’s challenges won’t be repeated anytime soon, it just might pay to hope for the best but invest for the worst.

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