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Wireless Grain

Your trip to the mill, or the elevator, could soon change. But if you want shorter waiting lines at the scale, prepare to get “tagged.” Mandatory radio frequency tracking will be the price of entry for anyone who wants to use new grain- and fertilizer-handling facilities that have invested in automation, comprehensive computer databases and wireless identification systems.

Commodity Resource Corporation (CRC) based in Caledonia, NY, is one of a growing number of operations that are working to bring bulk commodity handling into the 21st century. Les Cole, president and founder of CRC, refers to his company as a service provider to agribusiness. “We never own any of the commodities that move through our facility,” Cole says. “Instead, we provide a highly automated system that moves and mixes bulk ag materials very quickly and accurately. Our services spread the cost of high-tech equipment amongst co-op customers who generally cannot afford to upgrade to the latest technology.”

As in most areas of the country, small and medium-sized farm co-ops in the region have had a tough go over the past few years. With small facilities unable to afford new equipment and technology, the trend has been toward consolidation, shutting down locations and often forcing farmers to travel greater distances. Even with consolidation, most agribusinesses manage their bulk materials with decades-old technology. Cole believes that modern systems like those at CRC will help bridge the gap. With more automation, bulk materials can be moved out as quickly as they come in. You could call it a “hot potato” philosophy of bulk commodity handling.

CRC's two-acre grain, feed and fertilizer distribution center may be the most highly automated farm commodity distribution center in the U.S. With only five employees, the facility can custom blend up to a million tons of feed and a million tons of fertilizer each year. Grain comes in from many small and medium-sized regional co-ops. Bulk materials arrive on railcars. Although the facility has dry storage for feed and fertilizer ingredients, a significant volume of materials is loaded directly from railcars. Custom mixes go out on trucks at rates as high as 300 tons/hr. for fertilizer and 250 tons/hr. for feed.

Fast processing

Fertilizer and feed can be mixed and moved faster at CRC partly because the facility is laid out as a large flat mill with high-speed conveyor belts, rather than a traditional vertical mill. Ingredients are simultaneously dispensed and measured via a volumetric blending system for fertilizer and a loss-of-weight system for feed. It's all monitored and controlled by computer and a well-organized data storage system.

“Ten years ago, computer processors just weren't fast enough to handle a loss-of-weight system for complete formula mixing,” Cole says. “Loss of weight was traditionally used to drop in micronutrients and other small-volume ingredients, one at a time. But thanks to today's faster data processing, we can add up to 30 ingredients at the same time — everything from bulk soybean meal to micronutrients, even down to a few grams of vitamin E. The system can adjust ratios of ingredients as often as every 15 seconds or less.”

Tag, you're it

“No matter how much we invest in our processes, we can be only as efficient as our slowest customer,” Cole says. “So we want every truck that comes through to be tagged with a radio frequency device, either with a temporary credit-card-style tag that goes in the truck cab, or a more permanent tag mounted to the trailer.”

Getting a truck tagged means farmers can move over the scale and through the system faster, but it also requires some changes in how they haul grain to market or pick up feed. For example, 95% of customer orders are logged on to CRC's Web site, long before the truck arrives. When it does, an unobtrusive radio transmitter, slightly larger than a credit card, automatically identifies the customer and the order before the trailer rolls over the 80-ft. certified scale.

The radio signal, which can be read from about 35 ft. away, transmits the customer account number to a radio receiver at the scale. The account's data and pending orders reside in the CRC database.

The concept of using radio signals to track shipments and vehicles has been around for several years. Known as RFID, which stands for radio frequency identification, the signal conveys customer or product information much the same way as a retailer's zebra-striped bar code does, only without the need for a direct line of sight. In fact, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target are in the process of replacing product bar codes with chip-sized RFID product tags.

Retailers are a distant second to the transportation industry in the race toward RFID.

Passenger trains around the world use the technology. Highway tollbooths increasingly use RFID “smart-pass” cards to speed traffic and relieve highway congestion. Office workers are often given RF cards in place of building keys. And more to the purposes of agriculture, each of the 270,000 railcars that haul grain in the U.S. already has a radio frequency tag and a number that corresponds to a computerized online database.

A partnership between the Swedish company TagMaster and automated scale manufacturer CompuWeigh Corporation has gone a long way toward spreading the use of RFID technology to agriculture. CompuWeigh introduced its SmartRead RF tag automatic identification system for grain railcars in 1996. A sister product, the SmartCar database, contains data on all the grain cars in North America, allowing CompuWeigh to automatically calculate the optimum amount to load into each railcar. Grain terminal managers can monitor the database through a Microsoft Windows interface. With virtually every railcar in America now tagged, the next move is to get more grain trucks equipped with the tags. The goal is to move railcars and trucks through the system faster, while maintaining better records and accuracy in mixing loads.

The AgMark rail terminal in Concordia, KS, is another example of highly automated grain-handling facilities that use CompuWeigh scales to improve efficiency. AgMark's terminal manager Mark Paul speaks positively about the facility's grain management system (GMS). “I've been very comfortable with the functioning of the GMS,” Paul says. “It provides us with good inventory control and excellent on-the-go blending capabilities. The GMS is basically tied to our inbound scale system, but it controls the movement and handling of grain from the time the truck arrives for weigh-in to rail load out.”

At the AgMark facility, truck receiving is designed so that the driver remains in the truck at all times except to open the truck gates at the receiving pit. After weighing, the GMS automatically prints the scale ticket at the scale, so the driver doesn't need to return to the control room. Testing is handled remotely as well. Guided by closed-circuit TV, the operator takes a sample and sends it to the control room for grading via a pneumatic tube, similar to the way a drive-through bank works. All loading, unloading and grade data are referenced by account number and kept in a database called the AGRIS grain accounting system.

Price of admission

At CRC, customers must pay $35 for each credit-card-sized RFID transmitter and attach it somewhere on the trailer. Cole admits that not every customer is happy about this requirement, but most come around when they realize how much time the technology can save them. “We can't be the only ones to improve efficiency,” Cole says. “If they want the benefits of improved efficiency, our customers have to improve too.”

The $35 per tag is more of a deposit than a purchase price. Each permanent tag has a battery life of around six years. When the battery wears out, a customer can turn in his tag for a new one.

Robin Sax, CEO of CompuWeigh, says about 2,000 grain-handling facilities currently use a CompuWeigh system, accounting for more than 60% of all grain handled in the U.S. For many of these customers, using the CompuWeigh system is synonymous with RF tracking. CompuWeigh recently purchased 20 RF readers from Swedish company TagMaster, making CompuWeigh the largest distributor of RF readers in the grain industry.

“Increasingly, managers at these locations are telling customers that if they want to use their facilities, they will have to get RF tags on their trucks,” Sax says. “In other cases, RF tagged trucks might get preferred customer status, resulting in shorter waits at the scale. In either case, RF tracking makes it easier and faster to get each load fairly graded and weighed.”

Sax notes that radio tags are really just a way to transfer data more seamlessly between railcars, trucks and a database. That makes the database more useful for inventory management and automated handling systems. In some cases, he says, the data in grain inventory management systems also includes grain that is still on the farm. A significant portion of ADM's inventory, for example, is actually in farmers' bins.

As wireless technology, the Internet and in-bin grain monitoring tools improve, it doesn't take much imagination to envision comprehensive grain inventory databases that would include every grain bin in America. With that leap, farmers might be compelled to streamline on-farm grain management by acquiring their own on-farm RF tracking systems.

RFID wireless potential

The concept of automatic data entry into a database via an RF signal provides an answer to one of the biggest stumbling blocks to keeping any kind of useful database: If a busy farmer has to enter the data by hand, it often won't get entered accurately, if at all.

Wireless inventory systems can eliminate human data input errors and reduce loading over weight in the field, providing significant benefits for grain farmers. Moreover, identify-preserved grain and other specialty crops could be tracked and recorded more accurately in a low-maintenance database. Containerized specialty grain would lend itself especially well to RF tracking systems. Each container could have its own RF tag.

It's even possible that specially designed tracking tags could be released within the flowing grain itself. By 2005, the USDA plans to complete an evaluation of the feasibility of RFID technology for identity preservation in grain. According to a preliminary USDA proposal, the study will include “aspects of costs, practicality and methods to deploy, read and retrieve tags at critical points.”

Livestock operators can use similar systems to closely monitor and record feed and ration data in real time, as the actual ration is fed. And consumer groups' calls for country of origin labeling (COOL) have compelled several companies to invent RF tracking tags that embed under an animal's skin.

Almost anything that requires measurement and tracking, such as fuel consumption of tractors, could lend itself to RF tracking. Even manure hauling and spreading might be managed according to weight and nutrient content with conservation guidelines and crop nutrient needs in mind.

For American farmers, the wireless revolution has already begun.

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