“I’m tired of seeing farmers die in grain bins. I’m afraid 2020 will be record fatalities. The deaths already started in January. How many times have I warned farmers to stay out of bins. These people didn’t have to die.”
How many times has Gary Woodruff warned farmers to stay out of grain bins? Probably thousands of times since he got into the bin business in 1977. Safety has been his priority since then.
He gets emotional as he explains that 2020 will be a bad year for bin deaths — because of bad quality grain.
“How often do you hear about a farmer trapped in good quality grain? Never. If grain goes into the bin in good condition and if it’s managed properly, then there’s no reason for a farmer to risk his life going in there,” said Woodruff, the GSI district manager for Indiana and Kentucky.
“But in a year like 2019, grain went in at 16 percent or higher. Now it’s being neglected because of the pressure to get the new crop in the ground. That binned corn was already in bad shape, and it’s getting worse by the day, and losing value by the day. And that is exactly why farmers get into a bin, to see what they can do. That’s why 2020 is going to be a bad, bad year.”
Woodruff said grain bin deaths in the United States typically average 40 to 50 per year. The lowest number he recalls was 28 fatalities. And it’s been as high as 70 deaths once or twice. He expects the death toll to be higher than 70 this year. The problem of farmers going into bins of bad grain also exists on the Canadian Prairies but on a much smaller scale because of fewer farmers here.
“You can’t beat physics. When you put grain in above 15 percent, you are going to lose some percentage of the dry matter as it goes out of condition. That natural rotting process consumes dry matter to create the heat. You don’t get to sell as many pounds. Take it down to 14 and you might hold it until next fall if you want. But there was very little grain brought down to 14 this year,” Woodruff said, adding that farmers cannot improve the quality to make the grain better than it was when binned, so trying to save it until fall might be a questionable decision.
He said taking tough grain out and cycling it into another bin in late winter or early spring is often enough to prevent spoiling, heating and mold. Exposure to the air could have saved it.
Turning grain is really the original aeration technique, he added — 80 percent of the grain was aerated in 1950. The wooden elevators always left one hopper empty so they could auger in moist grain, thus aerating it at the same time.
“We’re at that dangerous trip point right now that if something isn’t done immediately, it’s going to go from bad to worse,” he said.
“Guys are busy seeding, but the grain doesn’t know that. It’s just going to keep on behaving like a bad crop locked inside a bin.
“You guys up in Canada may be a bit more fortunate. The trigger mechanism is the point where the outside average temperature hits (10 C). That takes longer in Canada to hit that point than for us down here.
“So now that you’ve hit (10 C) degrees, you have to make a decision. If you binned it at 30 F to 40 degrees (-4 to 4 C), you have to bring it up to (10 C) degrees so there’s no temperature difference between the corn and the outside temperature. Or you’ve got to sell that grain and get it out of there quick.”
He said some farmers in the northern border states and Canada will instead take the grain down to -1 C if the weather is cold enough. Some will even take it down to -4 C degrees to kill all the insects. When they do that, they first make sure they have it sold in advance and deliver it cold to the elevator.
The grain has to move quickly because if it’s left cold and then the outside temperature hits 10 C, water will condense on the outside of the kernel causing spoilage.
The other scenario sees the grower bring the grain up to match the ambient temperature, but then the problems really start to escalate.
“If you’ve got grain in there at 16 percent today and you start getting high humidity air seeping into the bin, you’ll get water condensation and that grain will just take right off. It’ll be rotten corn in a hurry.”
He says there’s no point wasting energy trying to get it in condition to last until the end of the summer. So much of that grain was garbage going in, so it won’t get any better. It’s only downhill from there and farmers are losing day by day. They might buy themselves a little time by drying it down to 14 percent immediately.
August is looming, and the bins need to be emptied, cleaned and readied for the new crop. Woodruff thinks hanging on to grain will cause serious plugging as conditions deteriorate.
“I’ve already seen more bin plugging than I’ve ever seen in a single year before,” he said.
“At Louisville, we had over 100 farmers walk into the booth to tell us they had serious plugging. They can’t get the grain to auger out.
“If that happens, don’t get into that bin. Contact your bin supplier and have him come out with his specialized equipment. He has screw augers that can bust up the plugs. Don’t try it yourself.”
There’s anger in his voice as he summarizes: “My fear is most farmers already know all this. They’re ignoring it because it’s too much bad news to handle. This is the worst situation I’ve seen in my 43-year career. All the worst factors coming together at once.”
Because of last year’s challenging growing season and harvest, grain in storage has a shorter life and is more susceptible to condition issues. But there are management techniques to try:
- Large differences in temperature can cause condensation to collect on cold grain and lead to serious quality issues. During spring, raise the temperature of stored grain to match the out-side temperature in 10 C increments until the grain is up to 10 C. Then hold that level into the summer for as long as possible. “An automated aeration control like GSI’s Bullseye bin controller makes management much easier,” says GSI’s Gary Woodruff.
- As temperatures continue to warm, cool grain with aeration to avoid insect issues, which will begin above 10 C and become serious around 24 C.
- Check grain weekly. Climb to the top of the bin, and without entering, observe whether there is a crust or any noticeable smell. An increase in surface moisture usually is the first sign of problems. Remember that an automated aeration controller does not replace regular weekly or biweekly physical checks.
- If quality problems are spotted, start aeration fans immediately to attempt stopping deterioration. This may work in shorter bins under 48 feet diameter. However, it’s not possible to get enough air in larger bins.
- The only real fix for out-of-condition issues that are not stopped by aeration is to unload the bin down to where the affected grain is out of the bin. This likely means the grain will have to be marketed soon, and poor grain quality may be docked at the elevator.
- “Prevention is always the best answer,” Woodruff says. “Proper management begins at harvest. Remember to always follow safe practices around grain bins. Enter the bin as little as pos-sible and take precautions using proper equipment with other people to help. Use proper respiratory protection against mold and dust.”