Forward thinking your grain storage plan

A Manitoba farmer was forced after a fire to rebuild his grain-handling yard. Here’s what he learned about planning for the future

“You don’t have to have many crops that you can’t take off the fields because you don’t have the grain-handling capacity before a system will pay for itself." – Brad Fehr.

When Manitoba farmer Brad Fehr, his father, Willie, and his sons, Mitch and Kent, installed four new 50,000-bushel-capacity bins in 2015, they figured they were well set up for grain handling into the foreseeable future. What they didn’t anticipate was just two years later their 38-year-old grain dryer caught fire halfway through harvest, forcing them back into planning for, designing and investing in updated grain-handling equipment. Despite the cost and effort of the new build, last fall proved just how valuable an effective grain-handling system can be.

“Last November, we were dealing with 35 to 37 per cent (moisture) corn. It hardly wanted to flow through our grain facility. But, our new dryer can handle 800 to 900 bushels per hour even when it’s that wet. Once we dried and aerated, it was OK,” says Fehr. “You don’t have to have many crops that you can’t take off the fields because you don’t have the grain-handling capacity before a system will pay for itself.”

The Fehr family farms 3,200 acres near Winkler, Man. In addition to the high-capacity dry storage bins installed in 2015, their yard includes three, 16,000-bushel-capacity bins and 11, 3,700-bushel bins for a total of nearly 300,000 bushels of dry storage, plus 4,000 bushels of wet storage. The on-farm capacity means they no longer need to sell any grain directly off their fields, opening up improved marketing opportunities.

Despite the cost and effort of the new build, last fall proved how valuable an effective grain-handling system could be, according to the Fehrs. Above (l to r): Mitch, Brad and Kent Fehr. photo: Brad Fehr

Fehr is a fan of big bins: he’s almost sorry the family didn’t opt for 75,000-bushel rather than 50,000-bushel bins. That said, he reminds farmers to think through their storage reality carefully — though bigger bins mean less auger moving, farmers really need to think through their crop types and, as importantly, grade consistency when making bin decisions.

Planning for the future

After the dryer fire, the Fehrs spent about six weeks working closely with local GSI equipment dealer Wentworth Ag, to list priorities, draw up potential yard layouts and analyze how an updated system might work best on their farm.

The build started by moving the yard to a better location behind the house and pulling in three-phase power. The Fehrs then installed a new modular, stacked dryer system complete with remote monitoring. They simplified handling by investing in a drive-over unloading system, two round tube chain conveyors (one to move grain from the wet bin to the dryer and the other to move dried grain into the hopper tank) and an air system to automate crop movement into the dry storage bins.

Why it matters: How are the decisions you make today going to affect future generations on your farm?

The dryer is a 22-foot, double-stack portable system that heats and dries grain at the top of the system, then aerates and cools it as the grain moves through the bottom. The dryer is rated to dry 2,000 bushels of corn from 20 per cent to 15 per cent moisture per hour. If the farm ever requires additional drying capacity, the Fehrs can either install a bigger wet bin and run the dryer additional hours, or build on to their new dryer.

“The dryer’s modular design is absolutely new,” says Wentworth Ag grain system sales rep, Jayde Klassen, who helped the Fehrs through the design and installation process. “What a lot of people will do is buy the base unit, which includes all the controls and switches to run two additional modules. Whenever they choose to expand, they can just add those modules on top.”

In addition to drying efficiency, newer dryers offer major safety and operational benefits, says Klassen.

“The shell of dryers hasn’t changed much in the last few years, but lots inside has. The metering rolls have upgraded from a four-inch to seven-inch standard. The poly fan blades that tended to break in colder climates due to humidity are now upgraded to aluminum. And the electronic components — especially the moisture controller — get better every year.”

Fehr estimates the dryer system likely has a 10- to 15-year return on investment based just on the direct energy efficiency savings of $0.10 per bushel. A new system also offers other key, though less obvious, savings, he adds.

“Those old dryer systems are very hands on. If you have something a little more automated, it takes less people to run. That’s a huge efficiency improvement, especially in rural areas where it’s often hard to find employees.”

Two years after the installment of a new grain-handling system, Manitoba farmer Brad Fehr says he wouldn’t change a thing. Establishing both short- and long-term goals was a crucial step in the process. photo: Brad Fehr

For someone used to babysitting the drying process, Fehr finds the new system’s remote management a major — but very positive — adjustment.

“We used to feel we had to stand beside our dryer all the time and listen to every bump and squeak. This one is so automated that you set it up and let it fly: I can watch it from my cellphone when I’m combining 10 miles away. Any problems, my phone will ring. It’s weird going to bed at a decent hour during harvest and actually sleeping.”

Tips for success

Klassen and Fehr recommend farmers consider the following points when upgrading or building a new grain-handling system.

First: determine both your short- and long-term goals.

“Look at what you need now: how many combines do you run? What do you grow for commodities? What do you have for wet and dry storage? However, also plan for future expansion. Make sure you’re not limited by the area of your yard or your power source, and make sure you build in a way that supports your farm’s future,” says Klassen.

Second: think dollars and cents.

“Your options are, either you borrow the money and do it right, or you try and do bits and pieces at a time,” says Fehr. “The numbers add up real fast. But, we figured if we’re going to do it, let’s do it (right). We wanted to build for the next generation.”

Third: consider power.

Once you know what you need, assess your power supply. Though costly to bring in, three-phase is the cheapest and cleanest power. Also, look into whether you can capture adequate BTUs from natural gas, which is cheaper than propane.

Finally: seek good help.

“This kind of build has a lot going on with many moving parts and auxiliary suppliers. Building relationships with people you can trust is always huge,” says Klassen.

Fehr agrees.

“Here in Manitoba, the certification process is quite the thing. I didn’t sleep the night before our inspection. But when the (inspector) got out of his van — and he was known as a strict inspector — he glanced around, took off his shades, and said, ‘This is freakin’ awesome.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Klassen has one additional piece of advice: use that dryer. “Drying is cheap when it’s warm out in August or September. If you have it, use it. Gaining an extra week (at the front end) of harvest is huge.”

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