Bin technology helps protect grain, farmers

Aug 9, 2013

Across the rural Midwest, landscapes are dotted with tall, cylindrical storage containers for grain. Commercial grain elevators and on-farm bins hold commodity crops so they can be sold throughout the year. With yields growing and prices fluctuating, stored corn or soybeans can be as good as money in the bank.  But only if the quality is maintained.

That’s something Kevin Larson’s been monitoring during more than 40 years of farming in Story County. When he started with his dad, he says everyone stored corn, still on the cob, in their own cribs.

“As combining, harvesting with a combine to get just the grain, materialized, some people just took it straight to town as grain instead of storing it on the farm,” Larson says.

But he never did that. Today, he’s got 10 steel storage bins. His dad built the smallest one—it holds 6,000 thousand bushels. The biggest can store 135,000 bushels of grain. For other farmers, on-site storage is a new responsibility—but its popularity is growing. The key, Larson says, is maintaining grain quality.

“I feel I have enough experience that I can monitor pretty closely by sight,” he says.

What he looks for is any sign that a crust has formed on top. Iowa State University agricultural engineering professor Carl Bern explains how that can happen.

“If certain conditions occur during storage, it's possible that some moisture will move from the bottom parts of the grain up to the top and then condense near the top level of the grain and then mold can form a hard layer,” he says, “in other words, a crust.”

When grain is unloading, it flows out the bottom of the bin creating an inverted cone inside. If there’s a crust on top, then a gap between that crust and the flowing grain isn’t visible. When grain stops coming out, a farmer may go in to see what’s happened. It’s called walking the grain. That’s when disaster can strike. You hear about entrapment—often leading to death—when people punch through that crust, fall into the empty space, and then get buried as grain falls in all around them.

Scott Haugan wants to stop that from ever happening .

“We’ve been to the moon—we can do a better job taking care of grain,” Haugan says.

Haugan’s Marshalltown company provides technology that helps prevent crust from forming.

“You think about the technology we have in hybrids, disease resistant, drought resistant, round-up resistant,” he says, “then you think about the technology that producers have today, you know the inside of a combine looks like the cockpit on an F-17 fighter.”

Technology in the bin is the next logical step, Haugan says.  

One of his first customers was Mid-Iowa Coop. He calls them an early adopter. At the Midway elevator, between Garwin and Toledo, a constant data stream from each bin feeds the temperature and moisture conditions to software that will trigger alerts and can be set to turn on fans or make other adjustments as necessary. A manager can view the data in the on-site control room or from a remote office or smartphone.

“If you need it on the cloud, we’ll get it there, too,” Haugan says.

Agreement is widespread that the best way to prevent grain bin entrapment is to keep people out of bins. And ISU’s Bern agrees with Haugan that the way to do that is to stop the problem-causing crust from ever forming. That’s the engineering puzzle industry and academia continue to pursue—though at least one bin maker, Sukup, does offer manual tools, operated from outside the bin, for breaking up a crust. Farmer Kevin Larson says his tech-free method serves him well.

“We’ve done it long enough that we know the symptoms, what to look for and keep an eye on as needed,” he says.

Larson’s not using temperature or moisture meters or the Internet—just his eyes. But he’s also cautious.

“We never go in when we’re unloading,” he says. “If for some reason somebody would have to go in, we shut the conveyors off and always have two people there.”

Larson can’t foresee a future where walking the grain is never necessary. But some commercial elevators, including Mid-Iowa, already have no-entry policies. And that makes them ever more dependent on emerging, innovative technologies.