Damp grain = tough decisions

Farmers facing a winter of stored grain management are getting reacquainted with the math, the science, the handling and the decision-making tough grain requires.
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Farmers facing a winter of stored grain management are getting reacquainted with the math, the science, the handling and the decision-making tough grain requires.

It’s something farmers will have to do until it’s all dried down or moved, but the situation should also goad them to think of how to avoid dealing with too-moist grain in future harvests, says a grain storage expert.

“We need to maybe actually try to avoid having to deal with tough grain in the bin and get that crop off sooner,” said Joy Agnew, who works on grain storage issues at Alberta’s Olds College and previously worked for the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute.

Agnew said farmers appear to be facing a trend of later harvests, with frequency of late harvests greatly increasing since 2014. They are also employing facilities such as much bigger bins that require different handling than what “we’ve always done before.”

Concern about crops still in the field and damp grain in the bin has been a constant murmur at farm meetings this fall, including at the Farm Forum Event where Agnew spoke.

Millions of tonnes of grain are facing degradation and downgrading as farmers try to get them dried and marketed. Buyers, unable to blend much high-moisture grain with lower-moisture grain because of the latter’s scarcity, are often reducing moisture tolerances rather than increasing them.

Many farmers don’t have grain dryers and current bin aeration systems are being worked hard, but thousands of farmers aren’t familiar with managing this much damp grain.

Agnew said farmers need to work toward “systemic” management systems.

The most important and easiest stored grain management measure right now is monitoring the grain. Whatever system a farmer has installed, or whatever measures he can take to assess what’s going on inside his bins, being able to spot problems before they erupt is invaluable.

“If you’re having to wait to get tough grain dried … it has to be monitored.”

Installing monitors in bins is a smart move because a farmer can “consider it like insurance on your grain.”

Complicated math faces the farmer who needs to assess how to dry damp binned grain, involving the costs of whatever heating or aeration system he has, the impact of air temperatures, and the various lengths of time it might take to reduce the moisture of the grain to both protect it and save it from delivery downgrades.

Some farmers have natural gas, while most are stuck with more-expensive propane. Some are using aeration system with supplemental heat, while some have dedicated dryers. All those differences affect the math.

This year’s problem is especially bad because fall temperatures fell so fast and harvest was so late that natural drying was extremely challenging. Below 10 C, binned grain stops drying.

“It basically makes it impossible to naturally dry grain in the bin if you took it off tough,” said Agnew.

Cooling crops like canola to very-cold levels might minimize the risks of heating and spoiling, Agnew acknowledged, but she cautioned against entirely trusting laboratory-based research that says cold grain is protected against spoiling.

“That does not represent reality, especially in these big bins.”

Cold crops might have less chance of spoiling, but they can also become impossible to move, which creates its own challenges.

Farmers need to be thinking about how they can avoid these sorts of nightmare harvests, Agnew said.

Could shorter-season varieties of crop be used because there appears to be a pattern of late harvests and early falls? Could maturity-hastening products play a role? Could variable rate technology help produce crops that are more uniform and sooner to harvest?

Should farmers consider combining sooner and drying in the bin while crops are still warm? Should another combine be added to get crops off quicker?

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