Harvesting dry grain can evaporate profits

Predominantly dry conditions across most of Western Canada means that much of this year’s grain and oilseed crop will come off dry.

That’s good news for growers.

However, excessively dry conditions can reduce the value of grain, especially if it comes off the field at extremely low moisture levels.

Kenneth Hellevang, an extension agricultural engineer at North Dakota State University, says producers stand to lose a significant portion of their farm income by harvesting and marketing grain that is below the so-called “market moisture” level.

“The main thing that a farmer faces with selling grain at moisture content below (market moisture) … is that they have fewer pounds of grain to sell,” said Hellevang.

“When we market or measure grain, we measure based on weight … so if we’re marketing grain at a lower moisture content, we’re going to have fewer pounds to sell.

“When we start getting considerably below market moisture and we’re harvesting and selling (wheat) at nine or 10 percent moisture instead of 14 percent, for example, we are losing a significant amount of potential weight.”

Hellevang used wheat as an example. At 14 percent moisture content, a bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds and has 86 percent dry matter.

When a truckload of wheat is delivered to an elevator, the contents of the truck are weighed and the net weight is divided by 60 to determine the number of bushels.

However, if the moisture content of the grain being delivered is below market moisture, then the load contains less water.

If contents of that truck were hydrated and the moisture content increased to 14 percent, the farmer would have more grain to sell, by volume and by weight.

Calculating the potential losses that result from selling extra dry grain can be difficult.

However, in general, wheat growers can expect to forfeit approximately one percent of their income potential for every one percent they are under market moisture levels.

In other words, wheat that is harvested and marketed at 10 percent rather than 14 percent will be sold at a discount of roughly four percent.

Those losses could be significant when applied to a wheat harvest of 100,000 tonnes.

Hellevang said concerns about marketing low moisture grain at less than its optimal value often arise when conditions at harvest time are hot and dry.

Some observers have suggested that grain companies should buy grain on a dry matter basis, which would ensure growers receive optimal value for their deliveries, regardless of the moisture content.

However, dry grain is also more prone to mechanical damage and cracking. So, from a grain company’s perspective, buying significant quantities of extremely dry grain on a dry matter basis could represent a significant financial risk.

Hellevang said growers who are hoping to minimize financial losses associated with selling extra dry grain have a few options.

For starters, they should consider harvesting at night or during early morning hours, when temperatures are lower and moisture levels in unharvested grain are higher.

Grain that is taken off a few percentage points above dry can be blended with grain that is below dry in hopes of reaching a more acceptable equilibrium.

Some growers have attempted to boost grain moisture levels by adding water during the binning process, which is known as rewetting.

However, the results of this practice can be less than rewarding.

For starters, rewetting grain after it has been harvested is illegal in Canada and the United States.

Canadian law allows for massive fines and jail terms for adulteration of food products. Recent cases, such as Mucci Farms mislabelling tomatoes, have shown a shift from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency working with regulatory contraveners for improvements to prosecuting them.

Some growers rewet grain, but those who try should be aware of the risks.

Extra dry grain will absorb moisture, but the rate at which moisture is absorbed varies depending on the type of grain, the moisture content of the grain being altered, the temperature of the grain and even the variety.

Extreme care must be taken to add the moisture evenly, consistently and at the proper levels.

Simply turning on the garden hose as the truck box is emptied is risky and is unlikely to generate positive results.

Adding water could result in pockets of damp grain within an otherwise dry grain mass, contributing to spoilage or mould.

Calculating the amount of water to be added also requires careful calculation and sophistication, Hellevang warned.

Even the process of adding moisture to binned grain through aeration fans can have disastrous consequences.

When a bin of harvested wheat is “hydrated” using aeration, the grain inside the bin swells as it absorbs moisture. This swelling can apply significant pressure to the bin’s structure, including corrugated bin walls, hopper bottoms and bolt holes.

It is not sufficient to leave some room in the bin, allowing for the grain to expand as moisture is added, Hellevang said.

In an enclosed space, the entire grain mass may not be able to expand into the space that’s available. Instead, it will apply downward, upward and outward pressure on the bin, resulting in buckling, stretching or ripping.

The message for growers? Think twice before altering the moisture content of their grain.

The only legal and safe way to adjust moisture content is through blending or by allowing the moisture content to increase naturally in the field.

Daryl Beswitherick, program manager at the Canadian Grain Commission, said it is likely that a greater proportion of this year’s crop will come off dry or below market moisture. That raises concerns that more growers will try to add moisture before marketing.

“We may see an increased number of producers using that practice to … increase the weight of their grain but it’s not a practice that we want to see done,” he said.

Farmers who have sophisticated grain handling and conditioning systems may be able to add moisture without being detected, he said.

However, at the end of the day, adding moisture to grain is against the law.

“If they’re adding moisture, it is illegal to do that,” Beswitherick said. “We do not want to see water added to grain.”

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