Increased storage is safety challenge

FARGO, N.D. - Nobody seems to know how much grain storage has been added in the region this year, but Ken Hellevang thinks the figure probably will increase at least 5 percent or 10 percent this year.

FARGO, N.D. - Nobody seems to know how much grain storage has been added in the region this year, but Ken Hellevang thinks the figure probably will increase at least 5 percent or 10 percent this year.

It's a challenge for management and safety, says Hellevang, North Dakota State University crop drying and storage specialist.

"All I know is that everybody is building fast and furious," Hellevang says, noting people he talked to at Big Iron still could pour concrete this fall and have a bin up by November or December.

A storage capacity report comes out Jan. 12, based on information collected Dec. 1.

On-farm storage was 750 million bushels last year, which goes up about 10 million bushels a year for the past few years.


Off-farm "commercial" storage was at a relatively high figure for the past 10 years, at

263 million bushels. That figure is fairly constant from

235 million to 255 million.

A Sept. 28 report will show grain in storage, on and off farms.

Hellevang says as more farmers get into corn, someone has to store more corn. Corn yields of 120 to 130 bushels will compare with wheat yields in the 60-bushel range.

Academically speaking, storage of corn shouldn't be much different than the traditional small grains, but farmers Hellevang talks to tend to talk about it that way.

"It depends on the year, but with corn, you're typically doing some drying," Hellevang says. "If we have a reasonably dry year, you're still doing a log of natural-air, low-temperature drying.

"Last year was a very favorable year as far as the corn drying, but a lot were harvesting it at 18 percent moisture, putting it in the bin and trying to bring it down to the moisture content they needed to store and market."


Corn that goes into the bin at 20 percent to 25 percent moisture needs to go through a high-temperature dryer. The logistics of getting the grain through a dryer might be a new experience for some farmers.

Hellevang talks about getting corn into an "equilibrium" moisture content - the point at which the moisture content of the grain is equal to the air surrounding it. That keeps it from being susceptible to mold or spoilage.

In that respect, the 15.5 percent moisture corn should store about the same as 15.5 percent wheat, he says.

"It'll store fine, but as we get into the warmer temperatures, we need to dry the corn to 13 percent moisture."

Storing corn longer becomes a more common goal, as farmers market to ethanol plants and longer into the spring and summer.

One of the problems Hellevang hears about is that when farmers run aeration to cool the corn in the fall, the air coming out of the corn hits the vents and bin roofs, causing frosting and icing that actually will seal up the openings.

"I really encourage farmers, as we're cooling corn in the fall, to leave either the fill hole, or manhole, partially open or on some kind of strap so that if we get the vents icing shut or sealing, it can work as a pressure release valve - give us a place to let the air out of the bin.

"With grain prices where they are, we can't afford to be losing any of our stored grain," he says.


Safety second?

We can't afford a loss of life, either, he says.

Especially when farmers have new bins, they should check grain every two weeks until they get used to how the building operates. He recommends checking not only the grain temperature at a number of locations, but he also thinks farmers should collect samples with moisture content.

And farmers should be careful, especially because bin size and auger capacity is increasing.

"Somewhere in the region, you hear of people getting buried in flowing grain or in bins almost every year," Hellevang says.

A close call like that of Alan Ruff of Streeter, N.D., last year is typical of many such stories, except that Ruff survived. Minnesota typically has one to two deaths a year from the cause. No figures were immediately available for North Dakota.

"There is a tremendous danger of grain entrapment in our grain bins," Hellevang says. "Safety is not a popular topic. Nobody wants to listen until - typically - it's too late."

When a crust forms on the top of grain, a farmer will go in and try to break the layer and often fall through, if enough grain has been unloaded.


"The crust breaks into chunks and you're worried about them not flowing, and you try to work on those chunks. Many times people will leave the unload auger running and will try to work the chunks into that flowing grain."

Flowing grain is like quicksand and grabs you, he says.

"The more you squirm the more you sink in."

The force to remove a person from the grain is many times his body weight.

"You don't just pull the person out," Hellevang says.

The rescue technique is just like what they did in Streeter - using some kind of retaining structure - planks or plywood, and scooping the grain away from the person.

The rescue technique itself can pose a risk. In the old days, experts recommended using a a tractor with a front-end loader is used to poke a hole in the bin to let the grain flow out. Now, they recommend poking holes all around the bin, so uneven unloading doesn't cause the bin to collapse.

Hellevang isn't sure which grains are more hazardous.


"People talk about flaxseed being dangerous because of its shiny, smooth surface. But I'm not sure that corn, wheat or beans would be significantly different than each other."

Hellevang says years ago, he'd cite research that showed that a person can get trapped in flowing grain in 4 to 5 seconds and be totally submerged in 20 seconds.

"With today's capacities, I have to think it could occur much quicker," he says.

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