Wireless bin monitoring system eliminates storage woes

LANGHAM, Sask. — It’s a beautiful winter payday. The B-train and auger are set up and ready. The auger is powering into the bin. Then the smell hits. Next the grain flow chugs to a stop.

“Now, this does not need to happen in today’s world,” Wayne Clews, founder of Clews Management, says passionately.

“All too often we still hear a farmer report that he went to haul out some grain, but then he experienced that awful feeling around the belt buckle when the grain stopped flowing or you get that foul smell. It tells you that’s you’ve just lost a valuable bin of grain, usually canola.…

“We farmed in Saskatchewan for 37 years. So now I’m 78 years old and I’m out of farming. Instead, the whole family is now in this business of helping farmers manage their grain storage.”

Clews said one thing he’s learned over the years is that most farms are highly productive and efficient — that is, until the grain is in the bin. That’s when the level of management declines, he added.

He said farmers feel their job is done if the crop is binned in good condition. They think it should take care of itself.

There’s no debate over the two factors for safe grain storage, established years ago by the Canadian Grain Commission, said Clews. It all comes down to moisture and temperature. Those two factors vary with every type of grain, size of bin and type of aeration.

The charts all show that lower temperature and lower moisture allows a longer storage time. Higher temperature and higher moisture shortens the safe storage time. If you read the temperature and moisture on a week by week basis, you can calculate the safe storage time.

“Grain going into the bin in the fall is like a freshly baked muffin,” he said.

“It’s warm and moist. If you wrap it up airtight and leave it on the counter, you’ll get mould in a few days. But if you put it in the fridge, it’ll last a lot longer, it’ll remain sweet and nice. Over the years, we’ve learned that winter is our friend when it comes to storing grain. It can be like a fridge for grain.”

Clews said his family has been in the bin monitoring business for 25 years, starting with the early analogue systems.

The next step was digital, with hand-held monitors, which still required the operator to physically attend each bin for readings.

He said the inconvenience of both systems often meant that readings were neglected until better weather arrived. The other drawback was that operators failed to analyze their data.

The latest advance is web-based wireless monitoring, which eliminates the need to interconnect bins and physically see the bin.

Clews said this is about as simple as it gets.

“A device on each bin sends temperature reports to the web, so they’re available to the operator anywhere in the world you can access the internet,” he said.

“We can install just the temperature sensors or we can put in cables to monitor temperature and moisture. The system is solar powered and the data is sent to the web through cellular technology.

“We set up the parameters for each bin with all the factors such as grain type and how many bushels, and then we define what constitutes an alert condition if the readings are outside the safe parameters. The system sends you an alert text message to your cellular phone and your email.

“So far we’ve done about 7,000 bins across the Prairies, so we know it works the way it’s supposed to work. The system is called BinSense and it’s manufactured by IntraGrain Technologies in Regina.”

He said cost varies quite a bit from one installation to the next. On large volume bins, the cost may be as low as five to 10 cents per bushel. On low volume bins, the cost may be 25 to 30 cents per bu.

“It’s a capital expenditure, and we think it’s good value,” he said.

“Farmers look at our price quote and look at their row of bins and say, ‘I can do all my bins for the price of one bin of canola or a super-B of canola. I’d better do it.’ ”

Clews said canola seems to be the benchmark. Producers equate the price of a BinSense system to loads of canola or bins of canola. It’s a capital expenditure, but is it a once-in-a-lifetime investment? Clews guarantees the answer is “no.”

Technology is constantly evolving, and he’s certain the future will yield up better systems. They have already found simple ways to solve the problem of bad rural cellphone service, he added.

“We have systems functioning from Fort St. John to Winnipeg and from High Level to Milk River (Alta.). We have faced what seemed to be non-functional service areas, but there are some factors working in our favour.

“One, messaging is not nearly as demanding as voice communication. Messaging almost always works without special equipment. There are several sites where we are unable to make successful voice transmission, even from the bin tops, but with no additional equipment, they report reliably.

“Two, we have two or three sites where we have solved weak signal strength with special high gain antennae. We think we can work from any site, at least any that we have encountered to date.”

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