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High-Tech System Aids Stored Crop Management

Monday, November 1, 2010
filed under: Harvest/Storage

Editor’s Note: An unfortunate “spring surprise” for some farmers storing sunflower or other grains from harvest to early spring has been the occasional “hot” grain that has greatly damaged the quality, making it unmarketable or highly discounted. Sunflower processors report these situations each year, and it can become a costly affair for the affected owner. But as explained in the story below, there are some options with today’s technology that will allow you to sleep better during those cold winter nights.

Some people might think Coleharbor, N.D., farmer Paul Anderson is hearing things when he says his grain bins talk to him. But, it’s really not all that crazy of a concept.

Thanks to specialized sensory cables in the bins and high-tech computer software by Integris Advanced Grain Management, Anderson’s bins actually do communicate with him.

This past summer, Anderson equipped six 48’ diameter bins with a sophisticated temperature monitoring system. Each bin has four sensory cables hanging from the rafters to the floor. The middle cable, which is 35’ long, has seven different sensor points on it to monitor crop temperature. The three other cables surrounding are 25’ in length and contain five sensor points each.

For each bin, Anderson inputs the grain type, variety, fill date and initial moisture content. After that, the software takes over. Each cable sensory point serves as a sort of “address” that reports temperature readings to a junction box within each bin. That junction box sends information to a remote terminal unit (RTU) outside the bin that is attached to variable frequency drives to provide three-phase power for the fans used to cool the crop inside the bin when deemed necessary. Outside air temperature and humidity or equilibrium moisture content also are taken into account.

All the information is sent via a radio signal to Anderson’s personal computer across the yard in his home office. “All these components talk to each other to make it all work together,” Anderson explains.

The RTU is key in providing information to the computer software that determines when and how long to run the fans. If Anderson is sitting in front of his computer monitoring the temperatures, he relies on the accuracy of those readings to keep his crop at the optimal temperature levels.

One bin full of pinto beans, for instance, is displayed on his computer screen with 22 different temperature readings being recorded every few minutes at various points on the cables within the bins. In this particular instance, optimal readings of 60 degrees on average were showing from the middle to lower sensors on the center cable. Those temperatures varied just slightly on the readings coming from the other cables near the outer edges of the bin. However, readings from the sensor points in the air space at the very top of the bin reported the temperature at over 100 degrees. Anderson explains that the ideal temperature for the edible beans is 60 degrees in order to be ready for processing as soon as they leave the bin.

At the bin site, a switch assigned to each fan can be set to manual, auto or off. When set to auto, the computer system can send a message for the fan to be turned on for a certain time in order to bring the grain temperature to a certain level. Once that level is achieved, the fan will automatically be turned off. Manual setting, on the other hand, will run the fan for as long as Anderson deems necessary.

Anderson uses natural-air drying fans. Air is circulated in the open space just above the bin foundation for full-floor aeration. Two electrical transformers handle three bins each. Each transformer is handling the maximum horsepower needed to power all six fans.

The McLean Electric Cooperative and Lillis Electric of Mandan, N.D., helped Anderson equip the operation with the transformers and the variable frequency drives that minimize the “in-rush” current for starting the fans. This way, Anderson doesn’t cause a power surge or “brown out” for the neighboring farmsteads when the demand for power arises.

“The whole operation definitely allows you to be more aware of what you’re doing with your storage and be smart about the temperature monitoring,” Anderson notes.

Kansas-based Integris, in business since 1984, has had this particular crop storage system on the market for more than 10 years. The company has extensive installations across North America and in 40 other countries.

Prior to installing the Integris system, Anderson says there was a lot of crawling around on top of bins getting seed samples to monitor moisture and check temperature. He still does that once in a while just to make sure things are running as planned — but certainly a whole lot less.

The system is programmed to issue alerts to Anderson via his computer if there is a problem. Issues that might arise would be temperatures going above desired set levels or fluctuating 10 degrees in a very short period. These alerts would allow Anderson to make the decision on whether to run the fans or to check for a possible malfunction of the system. The software can also map the landscape of the crop inside the bin showing just how that particular crop is situated. It will also estimate the crop amount +/- 2,900 bushels.

According to Integris National Sales Manager Bruce Scott, the cost per bushel for the system varies depending on the number and capacity of bins. A cost estimate for a producer storing up to 100,000 bushels would run about 15-18 cents per bushel, while 250,000-bushel storage would bring that price to around 8-12 cents. This cost includes the hardware and software, but not the installation.

For Anderson, the high-tech storage monitoring system has been well worth the investment. “It will prove to be way more cost effective than a $150,000 grain dryer that we’d have to push 1,500 bushels and hour through in order to keep up with our combines,” he explains. “Not to mention all the expenses of getting that crop in and out of the dryer.”

In addition to the software and monitoring system in the bins, Anderson recently purchased a top-of-the-line moisture tester from Agassiz Seed & Supply in Fargo. The GAC 2100 Agri can be programmed with eight different crops. With this, Anderson greatly improved the accuracy when testing crops prior to binning them or before transporting right from the combine to the nearby elevator.

Over the winter, Anderson plans on storing three bins full of corn. The key, he says, will be to monitor the temperature (especially at the peak of the bin) to keep the crop from getting too hot and moist.

Anderson notes that he is still in the “debugging” stages with the software, and his Integris sales rep has helped every step of the way. The company’s ability to monitor and troubleshoot the system remotely is also a big key. In the future, Anderson foresees an Android version so he could check readings from remote locations with a hand-held device.

How about talking to your bins from the tractor cab? Anderson may soon be doing just that via his cell phone. — Sonia Mullally

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