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Published November 02, 2010, 09:12 AM

Plastic grain bags draw more attention this harvest season

Giant plastic grain bags have made Mike Breckel’s fall a lot less stressful.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Giant plastic grain bags have made Mike Breckel’s fall a lot less stressful.

“They take the worry out of weather,” says Breckel, general manager of Fosston (Minn.) Co-op Elevator.

His elevator has placed 37 of the bags — most filled with soybeans, the rest with wheat — on a nearby field. The plastic will protect the grain temporarily from the elements. The other option, storing the grain in outdoor piles, would have left the grain vulnerable to precipitation.

“We thought it was the right way to go,” Breckel says of the bags.

If you’re not familiar with the bags, think of them as a giant sausage. The plastic bags hold grain within, just as a sausage’s casing holds ground meat.

The grain bags, a familiar sight in Canada and the Corn Belt, are becoming more common on the Northern Plains, officials say.

This year, they’re popping up more often in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, says Ken Hellevang, North Dakota State University grain drying expert in Fargo.

“They’re an excellent option for temporary storage,” he says.

More storage than usual is needed this year because of good yields in both small grains and row crops.

Limitations apply

The bags — each hundreds of feet long and capable of holding thousands of bushels of grain — have their limitations, says Hellevang, who has received a number of questions about the bags this fall.

Storing grain with too high moisture content can be dangerous, particularly since the bags can’t be aerated, Hellevang says.

Warm weather increases the risk of storing wetter-than-ideal grain — a big concern, given unusually warm temperatures this October.

Charts showing allowable storage times for corn at various moisture contents are available at

Insect activity also is a potential problem with grain bags, Hellevang says.

Potential shortcomings aside, the bags can fit the needs of some farmers and grain elevators, he says.

Popularity growing

Livestock producers have long used big, heavy-duty plastic bags for temporary protection of silage and high-moisture grain.

The bags began to be used by area grain farmers in the early 1990s, says Lyle Lange, owner of Lange Ag Systems in Willmar, Minn., and Marc Van Buren, its sales manager.

Lange Ag Systems supplied the bags and grain loading/unloading equipment used by the Fosston elevator.

The bags are made by various companies and come in various sizes.

Bags carried by Lange Ag Systems come in nine-, 10- and 12-foot diameters and 250-, 300- and 500-foot lengths.

To put that in perspective, 300 feet is the length of a football field.

A 10-foot by 300-foot bag holds approximately 13,000 to 15,000 bushels. In contrast, grain bins built 25 years ago typically held 6,000 bushels.

The biggest bags carried by Lange Ag Systems can hold approximately 33,000 bushels.

Equipment needed

Special equipment, powered by a tractor’s PTO, loads and unloads the grain into the plastic.

The cost of renting the machines and buying the plastic is approximately 12 cents per bushel to load (including plastic) and 6 cents to load, Lange says.

The cost may vary depending on the type of grain.

Plastic is used only once.

Training on the loading/unloading equipment is provided, Lange says.

Generally, the bags are placed on level, well-drained ground close to where the grain is harvested.

Later, when the farmer has more time or when grain prices have improved, grain in the bags can be moved to longer-term storage or sold, Lange says.

The current high basis, or the difference between the local cash price and the futures price, makes the bags especially appealing this year because they allow grain to be stored until the basis narrows, he says.