How to choose the right grain bin

Rain makes grain, they say. If that was always true, then Western Canada would be in for a bin-buster. Unfortunately — and contrary to popular wisdom — you can get too much of a good thing. If you’re a farmer who was prevented from planting a crop or whose emerging crops were drowned, you’re probably not thinking about increasing your bin storage capacity. But maybe you’re tired of cleaning out the bottom of your flat-bottom bins. Maybe the configuration of your bins isn’t right and it’s awkward to move things around your yard. Or maybe you’ve had moisture or insect problems in some of your storage and you want to upgrade.

Whatever the reason, if you’re thinking about buying grain bins, there are lots of different factors to keep in mind. One of the most basic is whether you want to go with smooth or corrugated walls. Each has its advantages and it’s worth the time to consider both when selecting how to store your grain.

Don McLean is a young farmer in south-central Manitoba. He also happens to be the president of the Boundary Loading Group that ships producer cars out of a recently constructed facility in Darlingford, close to where he farms. The Darlingford facility has six 4,000 bushel bins that it hopes to fill and clean out as many as 25 times a year as it tries to meet its annual target of 150 producer cars. Easy cleanout was the main reason the Boundary Loading Group opted for smooth-walled bins.

“We have guys shipping specialty crops, like organic grain, as well as oats for high-end markets,” McLean says. “They want to make sure there is no contamination of their grain by other crops that are hard to clean out, things like wheat and barley in oats.”

As well, the solid-welded walls of the Vidir bins that the Boundary Group chose for its facility are great for keeping out moisture and ensuring all grain leaves in the same condition as when it was brought in, regardless of how long it was there.

When asked what kind of grain storage he uses on his own farm, McLean describes it this way: “We have both smooth walled and corrugated on our farm. The majority of the grain storage is corrugated bins. They’ve generally been cheaper to buy — over 40 per cent less in my experience. But the smooth-walled bins are very good to have because of the flexibility they provide. We use them to store fertilizer and seed in addition to the crops we market.”

The cost difference

The flexibility that McLean talks about does come with a price tag. Smooth-walled bins that are powder coated on the inside as well as the exterior will run you about another $0.45 per bushel of capacity, according to Murray Harrison, the grain-handling systems salesperson at the Pembina Co-op in Notre Dame de Lourdes, Man. But if all you want is a bin to store grain, there are some interesting developments in the price structure of the two bin styles.

“Last year, there was a 50 cent-a- bushel price spread between corrugated grain bins and smooth-walled grain bins (bare metal on the inside). But we’re seeing some pretty aggressive pricing right now that has driven the cost of a smooth-walled bin almost to the same level as the corrugated ones.”

Right now, he says, he can get a 4,000 bushel smooth-walled bin into a farmer’s yard for roughly $2.75 per bushel. The same bin in corrugated material will run you $2.65 per bushel. Not surprisingly, this has created a lot of the recent interest in smooth-walled grain bins, even for bulk storage.

“Five or six years ago,” Harrison says, “I was mostly selling corrugated bins. But that has changed to the point where now, I would say the smooth-walled bin sales are higher.” Harrison believes higher resale value may also be behind the increased demand for smoothwalled bins. “I’ve had guys phone me for prices on smooth-walled bins before heading out to farm auctions. Then the used bins end up going for a couple of thousand more than new ones would cost.”

Part of the reason they hold their value so well is that smooth-walled bins are typically easier to move. Whether it is across the yard or down the road to another farm, they can be loaded up onto a flatbed and moved without dismantling.

Longevity

By the same token, Harrison says, you can’t beat the corrugated bins for long-term durability. He says that some corrugated bins basically last forever and that he knows of properly maintained corrugated bins that are still serving their purpose 50 years or more after they were erected. The smooth-walled bins he sells come with a 10-year warranty and he can easily see them lasting 25 or 30 years. But, as soon as you start using them for fertilizer, of course, that’s another matter. The interior powder coating is good and certainly provides increased durability compared to the epoxy coating that was used previously, but over time, there will always be some corrosion with fertilizer.

Storage insect management

Another issue that may influence your choice of bin style is insect control. Mike Dolinski was the provincial entomologist for the province of Alberta for 30 years. He is now a senior coach with Agri-Trend Agrology Ltd. working out of Edmonton. Dolinski believes that smoothwalled bins can play a significant role in helping grain producers combat localized outbreaks of insects in stored grain.

“The most common insect pests in stored grain in Western Canada are the red flour beetle and the rusty grain beetle,” he explains, “and neither of these come off the combine, so to speak. Both feed off stored grain and grain dust.”

The “hang up” which remains in corrugated grain bins or other types of grain storage is the main source of food for these pests in the period between when last year’s crop is hauled out and when the new crop is put into storage. If you can do a better job of cleaning out your bins, it stands to reason that you have a better chance of starving these pests and getting the upper hand.

“Smooth-walled bins basically give them no place to feed or multiply,” Dolinski says. “You’ve gotten rid of all their sources of food.”

They also make it easier to treat bins that have been previously infected.

“Fumigants such as Phostoxin all work better under sealed conditions. There’s also been some testing done on the use of carbon dioxide. With a really effective seal, it may be possible to get good control using carbon dioxide.”

Moisture migration

Dolinski points out that there is a negative side to having grain storage that is absolutely airtight: you can end up in a situation where any moisture in the grain basically has nowhere to go. It’s a well-known fact that there is air movement within stored grain and that, of course, warm air rises and cold air sinks. Add to this the fact that stored grain is an excellent insulator and that it holds on to its field heat for a long, long time — into the really cold days of early winter — and it is easy to see how condensation can become a serious problem.

Specifically, warm, moist air in the middle of the grain rises through the pile and encounters the cold air just above it. There, it loses its capacity to hold on to moisture and condensation occurs. As a result, you get a region of tough or damp grain at the top of the pile, in the centre of the bin, where spoilage can begin to happen. This is especially troublesome as you move to larger and larger bins where temperature differentials and “sweating” of grain can be even more of a problem. Dolinski’s advice: make sure tightly sealed bins have proper aeration and that the grain is cooled down properly as soon as it can be.

So, whether you look at it from a farmer’s, a salesman’s or a consultant’s point of view, it’s clear that the popularity of smooth-walled bins is on the rise. Does that mean that they are the right fit for everyone? Well, no, because there is still a price differential and a record of dependability in the corrugated bin’s favour. Like most inputs, the type of grain storage that is best for you depends on your individual circumstances: how much you’re willing to pay; what kind of promotions are on at the local dealer; how much flexibility you need; how long you expect to be in the farming game and so on.

Rhéal Cenerini is a farm writer based just outside LaSalle,Man.

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