Like many farmers, Brian Herbst, who farms 2,000 acres near Kasson, MN, started with a hand-me-down grain handling system.

“My dad started my grain setup in the early '70s,” says Herbst. “Obviously, what was big in the '70s isn't big now. Dad couldn't foresee our needs in the 21st century.”

Herbst notes that while having a scale is an invaluable tool, the 50,000-lb. capacity and 24 ft. length of his scale is small by today's standards. Since his scale won't accommodate the length of a semi, he has to split-weigh semis when he uses them.

While Herbst has to contend with some limitations, he credits his dad with foresight for building in an area that allowed for expansion. He was also an early adopter of gravity pits rather than using a motor-driven system.

“It's probably not the setup I would start with today, but it's certainly very functional,” says Herbst. “If one of my three sons choose to farm, maybe someday they'll build a new setup in the middle of a field somewhere. But right now, I'm happy working with the setup I have.”

Herbst is in the process of moving smaller bins across the driveway for seed bean storage, leaving room for bigger, taller bins next to the grain leg. He grew five seed varieties this year and says the smaller bins are just what he needs.

“If you have a 25,000-bu. bin for seed beans you can grow a lot of acres of one variety,” he says. “I especially like to use 8,000-bu. bins. The smaller size allows me to diversify into more seed bean varieties. An 8,000-bu. bin won't quite hold 160 acres of soybeans, so that works out about right for me.”

As an added bonus, many farmers don't want the smaller, 8,000-bu. bins anymore and Herbst can usually buy them used. In fact, he added two used 8,000-bu. bins to his seed site this summer and plans to add a couple more next year. For each 8,000 bu. bin Herbst figures he has roughly 70¢/bu. invested for the used bins, and new false floors, fans and cement. Herbst says he's still money ahead since he receives a 80-90¢/bu. premium for raising seed beans and believes his ability to store them is just part of why he's paid a premium.

Herbst now has 250,000 bu. of storage capacity including all his bins and his flat storage. The vast majority of his soybean fields are planted to seed beans. He delivers ⅔ of his corn crop to Al-Corn Clean Fuel, a local ethanol plant. Herbst owns shares in the facility and is required to deliver 30,000 bu./quarter to the plant. That's a commitment that takes a lot of storage, but it also has significant rewards, he says.

“I'm not selling corn to the ethanol plant, I'm selling energy. The price I'm paid is an average from the Minneapolis grain terminal less my local basis,” he says. “But it doesn't matter if the plant pays me $1/bu. for my corn or $2.50/bu. I'm interested in the added value.

“Farmers who think they're building ethanol plants to raise the price of corn a dime are mistaken,” Herbst adds. “That only works if you don't own shares of the plant. Corn is an ethanol plant's major expense. If the input costs are up, my dividend check goes down. I still market my corn with hedges and other marketing tools. But Al-Corn is another way I diversify my risk and my bins allow me to deliver there.”

To keep his crop in tip-top condition for delivery, Herbst uses an automatic aeration system to optimize the air quality in the bin. The aeration fans turn on when the correct temperature and humidity conditions are reached. To keep the system moving at harvest he uses an MC 975 continuous grain dryer. He says he can dry from 10,000 to 20,000 bu./day, depending how wet the corn is. Four years ago Herbst added a second grain leg and a 65,000-bu. bin at a cost of nearly $75,000. Herbst now has a grain leg for handling wet corn and one for dry, adding to his efficiency.

But he notes the efficiencies gained from small changes to an older system are where he's really reaped rewards. He credits the addition of a truck transmission on the dry grain leg auger as one of his better ideas for improving grain quality and efficiency.

“We can now alter the speed of the auger using the transmission to maximize capacity. Keeping an auger at ¾ capacity is less damaging to your grain than at ¼ capacity,” Herbst says. “This way I can just shift up or down depending on the conditions, the variety and how fast it's coming out of the dryer.”

Like Herbst, Mike Sollars and his brothers Brian and Jeff inherited the beginnings of a bin site from their father, Frank. Their storage site was built in 1973.

Mike is the grain controller, which isn't just a harvest-only job for the Sollars' 3,600-acre family farm. Even in the middle of July, this Washington Court House, OH, farmer was fully employed at the 360,000-bu. storage site rewiring a dryer moisture controller into a new electrical box in the control room.

The Sollars mix technology and logistics to keep their bin site running smoothly and to garner more profit.

“We rely on logistics instead of a big pit and a fast unloading system. We can get a truck in and out of here just as fast as an elevator,” says Mike Sollars. “To overcome our system's limitations we have an extra truck and trailer. You can't get any faster than the driver jumping out of a full truck and into an empty one.”

That commonsense solution is more cost-effective than building a state-of-the-art unloading system, says Sollars. “Can you imagine what it would cost for a 20,000 bu./hour leg to empty a truck that quickly?” he asks. “Instead, you can buy a used semi reasonably.”

Unloading speed is essential to keeping harvest going at full tilt, and their approach keeps it simple. Sollars is no stranger to technology, though. In fact, electronic sensors keep the grain handling system running smoothly.

For example, Sollars has an automatic aeration controller that runs the fans when the outdoor temperature and humidity are within proper ranges. Sensors in the grain legs automatically shut off the flow to the leg if the auger starts to slow down.

“It keeps from tearing the grain leg up if something's wrong, and it saves costly repairs,” he says.

There are even sensors for the scale. “I have a readout for the scales in the control room and electronic eyes down at the scale. I have it set up so that a loud beeper goes off outside when a truck pulls on and off the scale,” Sollars says. “We weigh everything in and everything back out.”

Tracking grain weight not only helps them document which fields are most profitable, as Herbst does, but since he also weighs grain, Sollars knows which elevators' scales weigh heavy and which weigh light.

He doesn't make selling decisions based on that knowledge because elevators calibrate their scales several times a year and it generally evens out. But weighing the loads has worked in his favor on occasion.

“For example,” Sollars says. “we took grain down to the river and the load was off nearly 1,000 lbs. I told them their scale was way off. They had just discovered it themselves so, using our weigh tickets, they worked with us and got things straightened out. We got paid for the grain we knew we delivered.”

While the Sollars' grain setup is a mix of low- and high-tech components, there is one feature that is just pure innovation.

Sollars added a switch-activated sampling system to his unloading leg. When Sollars switches on the unloading leg he presses a button for the sampling system, too.

The sampling system, made by Robco Co., has a series of six quarter-sized holes on an open-ended 2-in. pipe. The sampler activates a plunger once every minute that pushes the kernels that have fallen through the holes out to a pipe that leads to a five-gallon pail.

This system gives Sollars a 2.5 gallon representative sample of the entire load.

“It's more accurate to sample this way than to use a probe or catch a cupful every so often,” says Sollars. “The moisture controller is only as smart as you program it to be, so it's important to have a good sample and know your moisture content.”

Innovations like these growers have incorporated show it's not what bins you inherit, it's how wisely you integrate them into your operation that counts.

Think Through Before Buying Bins

Do a thorough equipment evaluation, capacity check and know where your bottlenecks are. Those are the top three things to think through before adding to an existing grain handling system, says Dirk Maier, extension agricultural engineer at Purdue University.

“To figure out what you need for storage, the first thing is look at the age of your equipment,” says Maier. “The second thing is how many acres you're running and what your harvest capacity is. Then look at where you'll be in terms of acres for the next 5-10 years.”

Moving smaller bins off-site, closer to the field, using portable augers and new in-bin drying technology can really help identity preserved or specialty grains because they're easy to segregate, he says.

“When you look at expanding an older grain facility you need to be flexible,” says Maier. “Sometimes leaving the old bins and starting at a new site is less costly and more convenient than trying to build around limited capacity, small receiving pits, short and small grain legs, and making existing legs reach taller, bigger bins. Plan your facility with as much flexibility as possible.”