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COVER STORY: Getting the grain on the train

ERSKINE, Minn. -- Capacity is king at the Erskine (Minn.) Grain Terminal in northwestern Minnesota. Dumping capacity, drying capacity, storage capacity and rail car capacity all combine there in good measure to help get the farmers' grains from t...

ERSKINE, Minn. -- Capacity is king at the Erskine (Minn.) Grain Terminal in northwestern Minnesota. Dumping capacity, drying capacity, storage capacity and rail car capacity all combine there in good measure to help get the farmers' grains from the field to market in an expedited manner.

"The way this can serve the farmer the best is just the movement of the grain," says Doug Derosier, the elevator's general manager. "You can get it in and out quite a bit faster than the old country elevators."

Bigger trains

The Erskine Grain Terminal originally was built just four years ago when local elevator co-ops in Oklee, Winger and Newfolden chipped in with Lansing Grain Co. of Overland Park, Kan.

The reasoning behind building the terminal was to create a better conduit for the three co-ops' soybeans headed for shipping ports in the Pacific Northwest. That came in the form of 110-car shuttle trains, which Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway runs directly to and from the Pacific Northwest.

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"At each one of those co-ops, we were all 50-car loaders, and all of a sudden, the railroad didn't want you to load 50 cars," Derosier says. "They wanted you to load 110."

Since these shuttle trains are more efficient to use from BNSF's point of view, BNSF offered a price break to elevators that had, or could make room for, 110 cars.

"That was part of the whole process of getting the shuttle loader here. We knew we had to build the facility and build the track and purchase the land. We have 5,200 feet of track out here; a circle track," he says. "If it's not the first one in Minnesota, it's sure one of the first."

The $1.5 million funding for the track was provided by the four investors. To make sure they could take full advantage of BNSF's pricing, they made sure the elevator could load all 110 cars quickly.

"Time is money. You've got just so many hours to load these things and if you do, there is an incentive. If you get it loaded in, say, 15 hours, there is an incentive from the railroad," Derosier says.

With the rail loop and a computerized loading system, the elevator is consistently able earn the incentive for quick loading.

"We did wheat in eight hours and soybeans -- I'd say about nine hours. That's roughly 420,000 bushels," he says. "That's cooking."

And that means nearly half of the terminal's storage capacity is available again for incoming grain.

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The load-out

The trick is to coordinate the whole train-loading process. When an empty shuttle train pulls into Erskine's rail loop, it isn't just dropping off empty cars to be picked up later. The locomotive is left there with the train.

"We have a couple people here that are qualified to run the locomotive," Derosier says. "Then there's a van out of Grand Forks (N.D.) that comes and picks up the BNSF people and takes them out of here."

After that, it's up to the elevator's people to run the train on the loop while the cars are filled. To do so, they have gone all out in the name of efficiency.

"It's all the latest and the greatest stuff here," Derosier says. "Everything is point-and-click with mouse and monitor, with alarms for detecting hot bearings and for detecting rubbing or out-of-line belts."

When an empty car is pulled into position for loading, an electronic "car reader" in a 12-inch square box mounted near the track reads a small, electronic unit on the hopper car that holds the car number and load capacity. This information is fed to the terminal's main computer, which controls the movement of grain throughout its system.

"It tells the computer just how much to put in there, and when you get to that capacity, it will shut her down and then it will be asking for another car," Derosier says.

The loading of that car is stored and used for historical records, payment information and on the printouts of the shuttle's certified weights.

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During this process, the grain inspector also is called on site.

"When we load the train, whether it be 1 o'clock in the morning, we have Grand Forks Grain Inspection come and they're sitting with us while we're

loading the train," he says. "They're taking samples and putting the seals on the cars as we load."

This is all coordinated on the same schedule with the train crew.

"When we get done loading, we give them a call, and their guys show up here and take them away. It's kind of an efficiency that the railroad's after. If they take off with the power and then we have to supply power here, it's time-consuming."

Exploders and options

The soybeans are hauled straight to the West Coast. The wheat sometimes is shipped to Minneapolis, but more often it heads farther east, to flour mills in Pennsylvania, for example, where long-standing mills are crowded in by their surrounding towns.

These mills have no room to install mile-long loops of train tracks to support the 110-car shuttle trains with wheat from Midwest shuttle facilities, so BNSF allows Derosier to divide his shuttle train across as many as four different stops, where the smaller sections can fit.

"They call it "exploder" trains," he says. "We get the freight rate for 110 (cars), and then we still get to service these mills that can only take like 27 cars, for example."

Another reason for the Erskine Grain Terminal's existence was that it offered railway flexibility.

"When we were in Oklee, we were on" the Canadian-Pacific Railway, Desrosier says. "They don't have a direct route to the West Coast like the BN does. That was a reason we wanted to get on the BN, because it allowed us to get on two different railroads. We have Oklee on the CP, and we also have an outlet on the BN. We have options."

New capability

While the grain terminal in Erskine was becoming firmly established as a premier shipping point in the area, the grain drying still was being done by the smaller co-op elevators. They then shipped the dried grains to Erskine for loading on a shuttle. The Erskine terminal owners refrained from installing a new drier.

"The reason is that, when the three co-ops had part ownership in this, you don't want to create a company that takes business away from you," Derosier says.

But the three co-ops sold out their half-interest in Erskine's elevator to CHS Inc., last year, changing the business dynamic. The Erskine Grain Terminal had been limited to mostly soybeans and wheat because of its lack of drying capability. The CHS buyout changed that.

"Since ownership has changed, we have to have a dryer here now," he says. "We have to be able to take wet grain or whatever the farmer has out there. We can't have our hands tied just because they got wet grain and we can't dry it."

High-speed drying

Ground was broken in early August for a 103,000-bushel wet bin and a 7,500-bushel tower dryer, one of the largest and fastest in the area.

"The dryer is rated at 7,000 bushels an hour," Derosier says.

Next to the wet bin is a 155-foot tower that will be used to lift the grain up out of the bin and into the top of the dryer, which will stand 117 feet tall.

Dried grain will be removed at the base of the dryer, transferred under the dumping bays and up to the dry bins, with more than 1 million bushels of storage capacity next to the railroad track.

"Because 100,000 (bushels) isn't real big, the whole idea of the dryer is its fairly good size here, and so we can just keep drying this stuff. You don't want wet grain sitting in that bin all that long anyways," he says.

Construction of the new drying setup is going well, and Derosier says he plans to be able to take in corn fairly soon.

"I'd say that first week in October, hopefully, we'll be able to start using it," he says.

Dual dumping

To support all this grain moving capability, the Erskine Grain Terminal has two 20,000 bushel-per-hour dumping bays for grain arrival.

"We can dump two trucks at the same time, as long as they're going two separate ways," says Shane Fredericks, the driveway manager. "There are only 20,000-bushel conveyors up there, and if we try to dump two trucks on one of these conveyors, they'll blow the doors off them because that's just a lot grain."

But they can unload a wheat truck and a bean truck at the same time because each load will be distributed on different conveyors to their respective bins.

"You're in and out of here quite a bit faster. That helps the farmer there," Derosier says. "I think just the speed of moving grain and getting the grain out of the facility on the railroad tracks and out of here obviously gives you more working space. Therefore, you keep you things turning here."

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