Farm Progress

Big Bins Get Even Bigger

These farmers built grain-handling systems with an eye on expansion.

Greg Lamp

August 1, 2011

9 Min Read


These days, most farmers have sizeable grain bin systems that jut out of the landscape like the Grand Tetons. In fact, some bin setups rival – often surpass – what you’d find at a local country elevator. Many of these Cadillac systems have been built with every intention of expanding further.

Take Mike Sullivan’s farm at Franklin, MN, which epitomizes today’s growing operations as it stretches to accommodate three sons: Tim, Pat and Joe. A big part of their growth means keeping current on their grain-handling system.

At one point, they’d considered buying a local elevator to handle their grain-drying and storage needs. But as Joe puts it: “Sometimes it’s just better to build new than to buy something old that needs fixing up. We did think about it, though.”

The Sullivans operate in central Minnesota on farms that spread out 100 miles from one end to the other. Because of those distances you might think they’d consider a couple of grain-handling sites, but that’s not the case.

“We centralized it to manage trucks and corn movement,” says Joe, who coordinates and runs the grain drying and hauling at harvest. During harvest he doesn’t leave the site for longer than three hours at a time.

“My nights get pretty short, but I need to be on-site because too much can go wrong if you’re not around to keep an eye on it,” he says. “I always keep extra motors on hand and keep a good electrician on call.

“I like keeping the system full because it helps us maximize our efficiency,” Joe says. “We rarely shut it down during harvest.” The setup has a 1,300-bu. dump pit that’s 14 ft. deep and equipped with two 14-in. augers. Plus, two big (110- and 130-ft.) grain legs handle 10,000 bu./hour. The last leg they built ran $1,000/ft. At the top of the biggest bin they’ve also mounted their wireless network, RTK guidance and two-way radio system.

The Sullivans have seven grain trucks, three combines and can unload a semi every seven minutes.

They now have a total of 400,000 bu. of storage in eight bins, with the first ones built in 1977. They range in size from 10,000 bu. to the newest 150,000-bu. bin built in 2006. 

“We turn the bin capacity three times during fall harvest, and haul dry corn to a local elevator to sell. We don’t store it on the farm. Our goal is to handle 50,000 bu. of corn a day – in and out,” Joe says.

“We have 70,000 bu. of wet storage that we can use to keep drying during rain delays and to get caught up,” he says. “When it’s dry we have 300,000 bu. of storage space until we can truck it out.”

Two dryers, a Meyer 2400 tower and a Neco with six burners, can dry 5,000 bu. an hour.

Still, with all that capacity they’d like to add at least another 250,000-300,000-bu. bin to help take the pressure off during harvest. “Eventually we’ll do it, but not just yet. With higher costs, now just isn’t the right time,” says Joe, who adds that it’s running about $2/bu. for a new bin including concrete.

The Sullivans have thought about adding another site to their operation, but they claim that it would cost them up to $200,000 just to get the infrastructure in place with concrete, propane tanks and electrical lines. “It’s more cost-effective for us to stay in one location,” says Joe.

“We usually refer to our bin site as our money pit,” Joe chuckles. “In today’s market our site is probably only worth about $300,000-500,000. For example, things like wiring are almost worthless, even though we have $80,000 invested in installing it. There’s just not much of a market for resale on bin setups. I’ll bet we’d only get about 10¢ on the dollar if we tried selling.”

When it comes to bin brands, the Sullivans aren’t loyal to any particular manufacturer. “We’re more concerned about 24/7 support from the company in case we run into problems, which can happen with the high volume we have,” Joe explains.


Trying to size your grain-handling system to your farm size can be a challenge, but there are some general guidelines, says Marvin Paulsen, retired ag engineer from the University of Illinois.

“Start your analysis by taking your total acres of corn times expected average yield to get your total bushels,” Paulsen says. “Then assume 20 days of actual harvest so you get total bushels you need to harvest and dry per day.

“Then assume your dryer will run 18 hours a day,” he adds. “That leaves you future drying expansion and tells you the bushel-per-hour drying capacity needed. Here you’ll need to make assumptions of average harvest moisture to see if you need dryer capacity based on five points, seven points, etc.”


Brothers Jim, Paul and Roger Handsaker, Radcliffe, IA, constantly think about expansion since several of their sons are farming with them. “We’re 3,000 acres now and we’re going to keep growing,” Jim says.

That’s why in 1986 they decided to abandon their antiquated grain-handling setup from Jim’s farm and build at Paul’s. It’s kept expanding ever since.

“We already had a 50,000-bu. bin there and added a 100,000-bu. bin in 1986,” Jim says. In 1997 they bought two 140-ft. legs and supporting tower, and stored the equipment for a year before putting it up.

“We didn’t buy it all at once because we couldn’t afford it,” Jim explains. “We wanted to build it on a pay-as-you-go plan. There was so much concrete involved in this and other costs that we just staged into it. A guy once told me that a lot of farms he sells have big, nice grain systems. I didn’t want to be in that situation so we just paid for it as we went.”

In 2002, the Handsakers added a used scale they bought at a truck stop in Iowa City for $2,000 and installed it themselves. A new scale would have set them back about $40,000. The scale is in two 30-ft. sections – one on each end of a 24-ft. pit that holds a full semi load of grain below the grates.

They didn’t add more storage until 2003 when a 75,000-bu. bin was built. They also built a 140-ft. building over the dump pits for all-weather loading and unloading, and also to store the trucks inside and out of the weather. Another 75,000-bu. bin was built in 2005 to bring the total storage capacity to 300,000 bu.

When they poured the concrete for the scale they also poured enough to handle a 17,000-bu. tank above the drive to help with speed and efficiency. The result: Time from pulling into the drive to leaving can be as little as 4 minutes.

“We know the exact weight because the truck is sitting on the scale; then off we go,” Jim says. “During harvest I can now pull in and scale the truck and keep track of which field it comes from, how many bushels, check the moisture content and check the dryer. I can keep up with a 12-row combine head and a 1,500-bu. grain cart and one truck since most of our fields are nearby. It really works nice and we have a good set of records.”

Corn can be moved out as it’s dried. One truck can keep up with the combine so as one truck hauls corn out, another brings it in. Most of the corn is sold to a local ethanol plant.

Buying an old elevator was an option the Handsakers rejected because it didn’t have enough storage or dryer capacity; plus it was old and run-down.

Right now they have an MC 1180 dryer that works well. Fifty feet above it they built a 5,000-bu. hopper tank that gravity flows into the dryer. Above the driveway, that 17,000-bu. hopper can be filled with wet corn if they’re catching up to the dryer.

“If we’re not catching up to the dryer, we’ll put dry corn above the driveway and then fill the truck and haul that right out when the elevators are open,” Jim says.

“When we designed the setup we really wanted to make it so we had plenty of room for future expansion. We could have moved it to a different location completely, but we wanted someone (Paul) living there at the site, which is only a quarter mile from the highway,” Jim adds. “We’ve even got a spot right next to the dryer to put a 350,000-bu. bin, and we’d like to add that in the next couple years. If we do that we’ll probably have to put in a bigger dryer, too. Eventually, I’d like to have 1 million bushels of storage there.”



Expansion considerations

What To Consider If Expanding

If you’re planning to grow your grain-handling system, Marvin Paulsen, retired University of Illinois ag engineer, has some advice:

  • Use three-phase power.

  • Make the site big enough to turn big semi trucks around.

  • Add a scale and large dump pit.

  • Include an overhead loadout bin in the design.

  • Build on high ground that’s well drained, especially around the dump pit.

  • Have access to all-weather roads.

  • Build a wet and dry leg.

Ideally, Paulsen says aligning bins in two straight rows provides the best economics. “Also, it’s ideal to have a dump pit to handle one full semi load at a time. The system has to keep up with the harvesting capacity so plan ahead; combines keep getting bigger,” he says.

“We used to say that farmers should plan for doubling their grain capacity every seven years; now that’s every three to five,” says Warren Odekirk, senior project manager for Growmark Grains Systems. “That’s especially true with bigger combines and higher-yielding hybrids.

“The biggest mistake farmers make is not designing for the future because of the up-front costs,” he says. “The tendency is to try and keep the current purchase price as low as possible without paying enough attention to the additional costs they will incur in the years ahead due to improper planning.” 

Odekirk advises farmers to be sure they have room to expand and not become landlocked. “When designing, ask yourself if you can easily add more bins.”

He says that some farmers are buying older country elevators, but he cautions to think carefully before doing this. “Many of them are just worn out and often can’t handle today’s big grain carts and semis,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Greg Lamp

Greg grew up on a diversified crop and cattle operation in South Dakota, and has 22 years of experience covering the farming and livestock business. A graduate of South Dakota State University, he served as managing editor of BEEF magazine for five years, previously working for Farm Journal, Successful Farming and Feedlot Management magazines, as well as having served as an account executive with the Colle&McVoy advertising agency. Greg is the recipient of numerous writing and photography honors.

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