Keeping the fertilizer flowing can be safety hazard

When you consider all the farm mechanization and automation, one procedure still seriously in need of innovation is extracting granular fertilizer from a bin after long-term storage. It can be a dangerous and frustrating exercise.

This is the time of year when many producers are filling fertilizer bins, taking advantage of prices that are probably lower than what we’ll face next spring. That’s what I was doing recently, but I also had half a bin of fertilizer left over from the spring.

I knew it should be extracted to break up any lumps. What a nightmare.

Now, admittedly that nitrogen-phosphate blend had been in the bin for about 10 months, so it had lots of time to take on moisture and clump up, but the same problem can arise even if fertilizer has been stored for only a few months.

The procedure looked like a safety training video for how not to do things. Poking upward with a bar or stick into the bottom of the bin while an auger churns just beneath your hands doesn’t seem wise, but what choice do you have?

Meanwhile, you’re constantly opening the bin to let lumps out and then closing it again to stop the flood of product that isn’t clumped. Some fertilizer bins have a poke hole on the side and while helpful, it isn’t a solution.

A big rubber hammer helps, and I’ve switched from a black one to a white one, which leaves fewer marks on the hopper.

However, it still bothers me to punish the side of a bin in an attempt to keep product flowing.

Eventually, the side access cover could be removed, and I stopped the auger to go inside and pulverize some huge lumps with a big bar. I was careful to make sure that a big clump of fertilizer wasn’t stuck to an upper wall waiting to crash down on me. When those big lumps fall, it can shake the entire bin, so you know there’s a lot of force.

I’ve heard many ideas for how to limit fertilizer clumping, and many of them would seem to have merit. It’s best to not fill bins with fertilizer when the humidity is really high. Sulphur is especially bad for clumping ,so it’s best to avoid storing blends containing that nutrient.

Some producers use kitty litter or another absorbent product on the bottom and top of the bin to collect moisture. Some use duct tape to help seal the lid. It might even be good to silicone around the side access cover. You can always cut through the silicone later.

The top recommendation is to regularly rotate your fertilizer. This is good advice, but it’s a thankless job, particularly because fertilizer is hard on all the equipment it touches. Plus, the more you handle fertilizer, the more powdery it becomes.

Some producers probably forego the potential price advantage of buying ahead of the spring rush just to avoid storage issues. Others find a way to use up excess fertilizer after seeding rather than storing it.

There are innovations on the market to break up fertilizer lumps after they come out of a bin. No one seems to have a way to avoid or manage major clumps that are too big to flow out.

If you have any advice on fertilizer storage and extracting it from bins without killing yourself, drop me an email so I can share with everyone else.

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