There's no single right way to handle grain, but some Midwestern grain-handling experts agree that increasing farm size and the need to handle specialty grains are influencing the way producers move and store their grain.

“The size of farms is getting larger and larger, and more grain is handled,” says Marvin Paulsen, associate head of agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois. “More, bigger bins are going up — the same size you see at elevators.”

But more storage isn't the only concern. With increased production, all grain handling equipment must be able to keep up. Paulsen stresses that grain legs, conveyors, driers and other pieces of equipment also must match the volume of grain being harvested.

“When farmers upgrade, they need to upgrade the whole system,” Paulsen says, admitting that most producers won't be able to afford a full-scale upgrade all at once.

“They need to think of it as a 20- to 30-year investment and plan for expansion. They need guidance before buying the first piece to make sure it will work for them in the future.”

At Tip Top Farms in Battleground, IN, Don and Bruce Brown built their grain-handling system over a 15-year period, adding commercial-grade Brock bins to allow on-farm storage of all the grain they harvest. The brothers farm 6,000 acres together.

Their system includes a 450-bu. dump pit, a 9,000-bu./hour receiving leg capability and wet holding. A Farm Fans continuous-flow drier running on LP gas dries grain, which is then run over a screener before being routed to a bin. The Browns can store 1 million bushels of grain in bins ranging from 16,000- to 205,000-bu. capacity.

“Most of the bins are built with a fully-aerated floor and a drag conveyor in a tunnel underneath, so the bins are elevated and the conveyors are at ground level,” says Bruce Brown. “We use drag conveyors mostly to fill and unload. They add reliability and move the grain gently to minimize broken grain and foreign material.”

The Browns raise some specialty grains that require gentle handling and segregation, so the brothers took that into consideration as they grew their operation. “We raise some non-GMO corn for AE Staley, and some years we raise waxy corn,” Brown says. “We obviously have to keep that segregated.”

Segregation and purity are big issues for farmers raising specialty and non-GMO grains since they need to avoid contamination. Equipment must be self-cleaning, easy to clean or used only for a single crop.

“The marketplace and te consumer are demanding a purer product,” says Paulsen. “Farmers need equipment that can clean out well.”

Paulsen says more farmers are using pneumatic conveyors — even though they use a lot of energy — because they're self-cleaning, convenient, flexible and adaptable to lower flow rates. Round-bottom en masse conveyors also can be used when total clean out of the conveyor is necessary, he says, because the round paddles sweep the bottom of the U-shaped trough clean.

En masse conveyors are recommended for high-capacity situations because they use less energy and are durable, Paulsen says. They're also gentle on grain.

Lots of farmers are upgrading aging equipment now with pieces that are easier on grain, says Charles Hurburgh, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University and professor in charge of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative.

“The majority of on-farm facilities were constructed in the '70s and '80s when there were incentives,” he says. “We're seeing aging bins and equipment now. The tendency is to replace it with equipment that won't handle as much grain.”

When considering a new equipment purchase, farmers have to look at each market separately, Paulsen says, to decide what type of grain handling equipment will work best for their particular operation. For instance, if a farmer is raising corn for livestock feed, there's probably not the economic incentive to upgrade to gentler, easier-to-clean equipment that there would be if he's raising high-oil corn, which is graded U.S. No. 1.

“There are many segregated markets,” Paulsen says. “For example, food-grade corn needs to have low breakage and low cracks to the outer hull, or pericarp of the kernel … certain markets need cleaner grain.”

Paulsen says there's no magic in knowing when to invest in higher-capacity equipment, but he offers producers a formula that may help. He says farmers can divide the number of bushels they expect to harvest by the number of days of good weather they expect to have to get a crop out of the field. The resulting number is the volume of grain they need to be able to handle in one day. For example, if a producer expects to harvest 300,000 total bushels of grain and anticipates 20 days of fair weather in which to do it, he needs to be able to handle 15,000 bu./day.

However, Paulsen says farmers can often get by with smaller capacity equipment and still get the job done efficiently by using automation.

Hurburgh adds that, while there's currently nothing revolutionary in grain handling equipment, subtle improvements are allowing producers to automate grain handling more than in the past, cutting back on labor and decision making.

My Dream System

When Jon Thompson, vice president of Prairie View Farms, Inc., started farming 2,400 acres near Brookston, IN, three years ago, he had the opportunity to create a new grain-handling system from scratch. He went with a Top Dry system, which has a drying chamber at the top of the bin and a storage chamber at the bottom. So far, so good. “Cost-wise, if you need storage and a drier, it's cheaper than a conventional system,” he says.

To add to the cost effectiveness, Thompson was able to tap into a natural gas line that runs through his farm. “It saves on LP, and we don't have to worry about running out,” he says. “We can dry for about a penny a point.” Less handling and lower drying temperatures are two other pluses Thompson has found with his Top Dry system.

“The only auger (our grain) touches is the unload auger from the bottom of the bin,” Thompson says. “It then goes to the grain leg and is either transferred to a storage bin or a truck for hauling.”

This minimal handling results in better quality grain with fewer fines. Test weights are also improved, he says, because with the Top Dry system they can operate their drier at 160° versus the approximately 200° needed with a portable drier.

Thompson's two-year-old system has two 42-in. drying fans and burners at ground level with attached ductwork carrying heated air 40 ft. up the side of the bin into a 2,200-bu. drying chamber at the top.

“It creates a constant temperature and flow for even drying,” says Prairie View employee Brian Cain, who runs the drier. “There are no hot and cold bursts, and we don't lose more than a tenth of a degree.”

When the grain reaches 102.5° and approximately 16 or 17% moisture, the burners and fans automatically shut off. The hot grain is dropped to a 32,000-bu. storage bin below, where the cooling fan removes another 2% moisture to bring the final moisture content to 14 or 15%.

“This system takes the guesswork out of drying grain,” Cain says. “We can put in grain with 20 or 25% moisture, and it still dries it to 15% every time.”

Cain says the system is not only user friendly, it's a time saver, too. “We can dry 850 bu./hour with 10-point removal,” he says.

Once a dried batch of grain is dropped into the storage bin, the drying chamber is immediately refilled from one of two semi trailers or a 1,000-bu. grain cart to keep the process moving. As the grain in the lower chamber cools, hot air is recycled up through the new batch being dried, adding to the system's efficiency. When the storage chamber is full, the grain is transferred to a 65,000-bu.-capacity second bin.

“We can fill the storage chamber twice and transfer it, then the third time we leave it,” Cain says.

Thompson says Prairie View Farms can currently only hold about half its corn crop, but the main grain handling system was built for easy expansion. “We hope to add enough storage to hold our entire crop in the near future,” he says.