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Importance of Automation in Grain Storage Management

29 Oct 2019
by John Lawrence, PhD., Lead Grain Researcher, AGI SureTrack

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Importance of Automation in Grain Storage Management

Importance of Automation in Grain Storage Management

One of the greatest risks on a farm operation is also one of the biggest money makers: grain storage. And with a growing number of corn and soybean acres—both requiring higher inputs and offering numerous marketing opportunities—the need for on-farm storage has never been higher. At AGI SureTrack™, we know and understand the challenges of storing and conditioning a crop that was grown for a purpose, rather than for yield alone. That’s why we invest in our team, our products and our educational outreach. Read below as AGI SureTrack team member Dr. John Lawrence, a leading expert on grain storage management, shares the importance of understanding grain storage management.

Grain stored in the bin is equivalent to money deposited in the bank. Money deposited in the bank is protected and monitored 24/7 with sophisticated equipment. However, most grains stored in bins aren’t monitored or protected from things like mold, insects and weather which can quickly eat into profits. For example, a 48-diameter, 7-ring bin (25’) can store approximately 36,000 bu. up to the eave; with a corn price of $4/bu., the potential profit of that corn is $144,000.

Here’s a story to help illustrate the importance of proper grain storage management.

This story was shared by a SureTrack Clinic attendee. He had a 50,000 bu. bin designed with 0.1 cfm/bu. airflow aeration system. (NOTE: This type of bin setup is best for aeration cooling or rewarming only, not natural air-drying.) He mistakenly used this bin to natural air-dry corn. The difference in an aeration system and natural air-drying is the airflow needed. A natural air-drying bin needs airflow of 1-1.5 cfm/bu. based on the harvest moisture and location.

He loaded his harvested corn at 22% moisture into the bin with 0.1 cfm/bu. airflow and started natural air-drying. His strategy was to run the fan 24/7 for three months for complete drying. However, he ran the fan 24/7 for three months with the wrong airflow. When he went back to inspect the bin 3 months later, he found all the grain was black from spoilage.

This bin was located 20 miles from his home and didn’t have a monitoring system. This story took place in 2012 when corn was about $7/bu., that’s a loss of approximately $320,000 (if we remove shrinkage moisture weight).

What are the key takeaways from this story?

  1. Proper bin aeration setup is a must
  2. The importance of a good grain monitoring system



Good Aeration Systems:

The bin aeration system needs to be designed based on the purpose. If the purpose is natural air-drying, then the airflow requirement should be in the range of 1-1.5 cfm/bu. based on the initial harvest moisture and location. High initial moisture needs higher flow to avoid spoilage. If the purpose is only aeration cooling or rewarming, then the airflow requirement is only 0.1-0.2 cfm/bu. Proper understanding of these airflows is needed for effective grain management.

A good aeration system is only half of the solution, you also need a monitoring system to let you know when things go wrong. You need to know when the fan fails or if hotspots begin to form. His strategy was to set it and forget it. If he would have gone and checked every week or every other week, he might have preserved some of the grain and minimized his losses.

Grain Monitoring Systems:

A good grain monitoring system consists of temperature and moisture cables, plenum and headspace relative humidity sensors, carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors, fan control system, weather station, auto strategies, wireless network for data collection and computer/smartphones.

Temperature Cables:
The temperature cables (also called temp cables) have two purposes, one to measure the stored grain mass temperatures in the bin and another to detect hotspots or spoilage. In good grain management practice, always keep your grain temperature less than 40-60oF based on the location and season. In the incident described above, if the bin had temp cables installed to monitor, potentially $320,000 in profit could have been saved. The system would have sent alerts directly to the farmer notifying him of the hotspot allowing him to manage the grain and save some profit. If he would have sold the corn immediately, he might have gotten more than 80-90% of the potential profit.

Moisture Cables:
The moisture cables have two purposes, one to measure the moisture content of the grain mass in the bin during natural air-drying, the other to measure moisture during storage and selling. In good grain management practice, always keep your grain moisture less than 65% relative humidity at the storage temperature. This 65% relative humidity determines the safe storage moisture of any grains at a prescribed temperature. One of the advantages of knowing the moisture content is, during selling if the moisture contents of the grains are 2% less than the marketable moisture content, you can add 2% moisture by conditioning and make additional money. For example, if you have 50,000 bu. of soybeans at 11% moisture and add 2% moisture by conditioning using EMC (Equilibrium Moisture Content) of ambient air, you increase your revenue by $10,345 with a soybean price of $9. You may spend $2000 on electricity for run costs, but the gain far exceeds the cost. This would not be possible without moisture cables attached to a fan control system.

Plenum/Headspace Relative Humidity Sensors:
Plenum and headspace relative humidity sensors measure relative humidity and temperature of air at the plenum and headspace. At the headspace, the relative humidity sensor helps to identify the condensation conditions. At the plenum, the RH sensor helps to calculate the EMC of air going through the grain mass.

Plenum/Headspace Carbon Dioxide Sensors:
At the headspace and plenum, the CO2 sensors helps to identify grain spoilage conditions. The concentration of CO2 in the ambient air is 400 ppm. If the concentration of CO2 in the headspace or plenum is greater than 2000 ppm, spoilage will occur. CO2 is the early detector of hotspots compared to temp cables. CO2 is a gas and moves around to be detected, however, temp cables can’t easily detect hotspots if the sensor is 2 ft away from the location, therefore the combination of temp cables and CO2 sensors is most effective.

Fan Control:
A fan control system dictates the fan ON or OFF setting based on the EMC requirement decided by the strategy selected. SureTrack strategies can be Auto Dry, Auto Cool, Auto Hydrate, Auto Thawing, User-Control, Monitoring Only and so on. Auto strategies are selected to save time and energy in grain storage management and help drive revenue. Auto strategies help farmers accomplish their goals without needing to know all the scientific details of grain storage management.

Weather Station:
A weather station measures the ambient temperature and RH, rainfall in the bin location. This weather data is used to calculate the EMC of ambient air. Based on the strategy requirement, these EMCs are used to turn fans ON or OFF through the automated control system. For example, if we selected Auto Dry for natural air-drying of corn loaded at 20% harvest moisture in the bin, the control system looks for ambient and plenum EMC less than 20% for drying and based on the EMC the fan will turn ON or OFF.

Wireless Network:
The wireless network transfers data from bin to server. From the server, we can view bin details anytime, anywhere with a smartphone, tablet or computer.

We know, this is a lot of information, and there are a lot of moving pieces and variables in the proper management of stored grain; afterall, that’s why you bought BinManager, right? In Dr. John’s breakdown of each of the components of a good grain monitoring system, our goal is to provide a reference in understanding how important and costly improperly managed bins can be.

If you would like to learn more about how to properly manage grain, as well as the benefits of growing for a purpose with the SureTrack FARM™ management system, consider registering for an upcoming SureTrack Clinic. Clinics are held the first Thursday and Friday of every month and we welcome anyone to attend. Registration is always free, and AGI SureTrack will cover the hotel and meals once you arrive. Join us for a one-of-a-kind educational experience in Archie, MO by registering at https://info.intellifarms.com/suretrack-clinic or give us a call at 855-206-5612.