NDSU ag engineer addresses storage concerns

FARGO, N.D. -- Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University Extension Service ag engineer, is helping farmers sharpen their pencils on how to handle stored small grains and whether to leave corn crops in the field.

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Farmers in the region have increased grain storage and on-farm propane storage, in part because of concerns about timeliness of supply during late, wet harvests. This setup is along U.S. Highway 281 near the state line at Ellendale, N.D.

FARGO, N.D. -- Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University Extension Service ag engineer, is helping farmers sharpen their pencils on how to handle stored small grains and whether to leave corn crops in the field.

A lot of high-moisture grain is going into high-temperature drying and a lot of wheat is going into air bins.

"The unfortunate thing is we're late enough and we've been damp enough that just with the fan heat, we may not be able to get that wheat down to the moisture content we want for marketing," Hellevang says. "We've had a couple of nice weeks helping us out, but the long-range forecast is a chance for more showers. It'll be a little about what Mother Nature chooses to give us."

Air going through a fan will be warmed 4 to 5 degrees. But at 75 percent outdoor humidity, farmers need to add a little supplemental heat, even if they haven't before.

"When I say a little, I'm talking about warming the air 2 to 3 degrees -- just enough to drop the relative humidity a little bit more, get down to 13 percent moisture," says Hellevang, one of the few university experts on grain drying in the Upper Great plains.


With bumper crops and grain storage fuller than normal, some producers will need to consider alternative storage. In the past, alternatives meant piling grain in machine sheds.

"Today, generally what we're looking at are grain bags, which work very well, as long as we're putting dry grain into the bag," Hellevang says. The other option is to put grain in bunkers or piles.

Farmers should avoid piling grain on unprepared ground.

"We should be thinking as though we're preparing another storage facility, just happened to be in a pile instead of in a tube or in a building. It should be a prepared surface," he says. "We should be putting aeration in there. We should put a cover over the top so we can truly protect that grain."

Piling directly on the ground can be very risky. A 1-inch rain will increase moisture in the top foot an average of 9 percent.

"You get a 1-inch rain, and you'll have a foot of spoiled grain on the top," he says. "The wind does not aerate that grain. Wind takes the path of least resistance, so it'll flow over the top of the pile rather than into the pile."

Different bins, different thinking

Many farmers have experience drying wheat in 24- or 36-foot diameter bins, but bigger bins require different thinking.


"Today we're talking 42- or 48-foot diameter bins and a lot of times those bins will have grain depths that are too deep to dry in under any circumstances," Hellevang says.

Wheat drying can be accomplished only up to 18- to 20-foot depths.

"But if we go beyond that, it really restricts the air flow. You might have a 40,000-bushel bin, and you can only fill it two-thirds full if you're going to dry in it. If you fill it all the way to the top, you don't have enough air flow to dry that grain."

Drying corn, propane supply

With this year's corn, farmers generally have been hoping the crop gets to physiological maturity by Oct. 1. But much of that corn this year will likely be wet -- up to 35 percent moisture, Hellevang says. October temperatures likely won't dry the corn sufficiently, so supplemental heat will be needed.

Farmers in the northern part of North Dakota have had damper conditions and later harvests, so more are set up with supplemental heat.

Hellevang says farmers needn't buy an over-sized heater.

"You can go out and buy a 1 million Btu heater, and you may only need a small heater -- I'm talking 100,000 Btus, depending on the size of the bin you're working with," Hellevang says.


Last year, farmers worried about a propane shortage as a result of the pending shut-down and reversal of the Cochin Pipeline in Carrington, N.D., and slow rail service. Now, large rail-fed depots have been installed to make up for some of the difference.

"It should be better than what we had last year," Hellevang says. "The industry is making adjustments to supply us with propane. One of the things we have working against us this year is we've had a fair amount of high-temperature wheat drying that's already occurring," which has used up some of the supply that farmers or co-ops had laid in.

There might be "a little window" between wheat and corn drying, but the key will be October weather.

"If we get caught with wet soybeans then we'll have to dry soybeans, as well as very wet corn," Hellevang says. "I hear a number of people starting to weigh the economics of that. If I'm looking at $3 corn, can I afford to spend the money to dry it? If the corn is 20 percent moisture, it probably makes sense. If corn is 25 percent moisture, the economics are entirely different.

"We're seeing a lot of frosted corn and that's going to be another issue," Hellevang says. "Not only is North Dakota going to be looking at later maturity and wetter corn, but it's going to affect a wider area."

Generally, the harvest and drying season looks full of challenges, Hellevang says.

Hellevang and colleague Joel Ransom at NDSU say with $2-per-gallon propane, 120-bushel-per-acre corn yields and $3-per-bushel prices, mature corn could break even with roughly a 13 percent yield loss in the field, or 16 bushels per acre.

If farmers have light test weight corn that is going to be discounted heavily, they'll likely let it stand in the field. If they have high-quality, 57-pound test weight corn it's probably worth enough to dry it.


"It's a judgment call farmers need to make," Hellevang says.

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