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Perfect Storm for Grain Storage

The list of challenges for the crop from harvest and beyond will require special tactics.

The hits to the 2012 grain crop are likely to keep on rolling, right through harvest and beyond. GSI's Gary Woodruff rattles off a list of very real problems for storing the 2012 crop: stressed grain, high harvest temperatures, mold.

"It's really a perfect storm," describes Woodruff, a grain conditioning specialist who's been in the field since 1975. "There's not been a worse year for potential grain loss in the bins than this year."

Woodruff and his colleagues, both in industry and academia, are genuinely concerned. "Everything we know that is bad for grain storage is here today," he adds.

BAD ODDS: "I think conditions are ripe to see a lot more lost grain in the bin this year," says Gary Woodruff, GSI grain conditioning specialist. "We have so many factors that aren't a part of our 'normal' fall."

Hot weather. Harvest temperatures will be higher this year, both because farmers are harvesting earlier and because high temperatures are expected to continue into early fall. Woodruff says insects, mold and fungi are all more active at higher temperatures.

Grain has a lower shelf life at higher temperatures, too. Grain at 50 degrees and 15% moisture can be safely stored for more than 300 days, Woodruff says, but you only have about 60 days of storage life at 80 degrees, and about 30 days at 90 degrees. For example, say you store corn at 15% moisture for three to four weeks in 80-degree weather. At that rate, you use up half the storage life. Even if you cool grain to 50 degrees after that, you only have about 150 days of shelf life left.

Stressed grain. Corn coming out of the field this fall is highly stressed. It will break easily and because fines are hard to store and aerate, they are "the perfect growing condition for mold and insects," Woodruff adds. "So now we have a small harvest that's susceptible to breakage and fines."

Mold. Levels of mold in fields are already elevated, and mold works best at temperatures in the 80- to 90-degree range. They work quickly, too.

"At these temperatures, mold increases as much as 6% on hour in the truck and wet bin after harvest," Woodruff says. "It's like leaving your chicken out on the table at a picnic. Mold loves a little bit of moisture and a high temperature."

What to do?

"The old thoughts aren't operational this year," Woodruff explains. "We're bringing grain out of the field with some of the highest mold levels we've ever seen, then putting it in hot storage."

Woodruff suggests Midwest farmers think like Southern farmers: move quickly at harvest. Get grain out of trucks and hopper bins and through a high-temperature dryer as quickly as possible. Harvest as early as possible, he adds, to beat the stalk degradation that's occurred as plants have cannibalized the stalk to make the ear.

Woodruff likens high-temperature drying to pasteurization; heating grain to 140 degrees kills off most aflatoxin-inducing mold and insects, and improves shelf life. Farmers who high-temp dry aren't out of the woods - they still have fines and hot storage conditions to deal with – but they'll have a better start to their storage battle.

Woodruff is not against low-temp drying but if that's your only on-farm option, he says 2012 may be the year to go to the elevator. "If it's in the 80s and you're trying to dry 20% moisture grain, the upper half of your bin will go bad before it's dry," he explains. "Grain that's not heated to high temperatures won't store well this year."

Moisture: half the battle

Either way, consider drying grain further than you normally would. Woodruff says in the past, the rule of thumb was to dry to at least 15% if you were storing through spring; to at least 14% if storing through summer; and to at least 13% if storing more than a year. This year? Drop it another half point or full point. 

"Make low moisture your insurance this year," he says. You can't control external temperatures but you can control moisture, and that's more than half the battle this year.

Remember, too: bins that are half full can be dried and aerated at least twice as fast as bins that are full. So if you're thinking you'll only need to fill three of your five bins with this year's short crop, consider spreading it out across all five bins. "You spread your risk that way, too," Woodruff says. "If a bin goes bad, you lose a smaller percentage."

Finally, check bins often; Woodruff says to monitor bins weekly, and do it at the same time and day, so you establish a routine. "If you can catch it early, you're more likely to salvage it." And if you already have temperature cables and auto-aeration controls in place, this will be the year it'll pay off faster.

"It's discouraging to have a small crop and then have it go bad in the bin," Woodruff says. "You don't want to make a mistake this year."

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