Concrete elevators have been a mainstay of grain storage for MFA Incorporated and other commercial elevator operators for decades. But recently, both elevators and farmers have turned to metal storage bins in a big way.
“Farmers have been producing record corn and soybean crops, and that’s why we’re seeing a trend toward more and larger bins,” said Nathan Belstle, project engineer for MFA Incorporated who purchases bins for the company. “These days, the focus is on steel.”
MFA and its corporate-owned Agri Services Centers handled 75 million bushels in 2017, the second-largest volume in company history. It expects to handle 92 million bushels in 2018 in its 90 grain-handling locations. That doesn’t include grain stored at locally owned MFA affiliates and the hundreds of independent dealers that work with MFA.
While MFA hasn’t added new storage so far in 2018, Belstle estimates that the company installed 40 metal bins a year for the previous five years—in increasingly larger sizes.
“Twenty years ago, a lot of bins were 48 feet in diameter, 22 rings tall and held 100,000 bushels,” he said. “Over the last four years, we’ve seen more bins with 72 to 105 rings that hold 250,000 to 300,000 bushels. MFA owns some 90-foot diameter bins that hold 550,000 bushels. We choose the size based on the amount of real estate available at each location.”
Ed Zdrojewski, editor of Grain Journal, published by the Grain Elevator and Processing Society, sees those same bin trends.
“Steel is the biggest trend, and steel bins are getting larger,” he said. “Some commercial elevators are purchasing new 105-foot-diameter steel bins that store 800,000 bushels. But you won’t see anything that big on the farm—the largest would usually be about 60 feet in diameter and hold 100,000 bushels.”
Glenn Kaiser is one of the farmers contributing to that trend. He is completing a 13-year plan to improve grain storage capacity on the family’s row-crop farm in Carrollton, Mo. That plan began in 2005 when Kaiser purchased land in a centrally located site for the sole purpose of locating new bins. He worked with W.B. Young of Marshall, Mo., to develop a master storage plan, and the company installed GSI brand facilities and equipment incrementally over the years.
This year, the Kaisers added two 100,000-bushel metal bins and will soon install two more, giving them 600,000-bushel capacity for corn and soybeans.
“I didn’t realize that placing all this storage in one setting would be so nice,” Kaiser said. “We move grain more quickly during harvest and have more control over when we sell it. We try to wait until June or July when the price goes up. We’ve been able to sell corn for $4 a bushel in the last few years.”
The first bins Kaiser added were equipped with traditional augers, but in 2013, he built a new tower dryer system with three receiving legs. One leg is designed to move wet corn into a wet bin; when the grain dries, it moves through a dry leg to one of seven dry bins. If the grain arrives dry enough, Kaiser bypasses the wet leg and uses the main receiving leg.
“It was a really wet corn year in 2013, and it put the new system to the test,” Kaiser said. “This was not an off-the-shelf project. It was well engineered.”
Automation has decreased labor, increased efficiencies and improved safety when it comes to monitoring the grain, Kaiser added. He owns three semi trucks and hires two additional truck drivers during harvest. When a truck arrives at his on-farm storage site, a scale house measures its load. The truck dumps grain into a pit from its hopper bottom, and the scale house then measures its empty weight.
“The truck never has to move,” Kaiser said, “and that speeds up the process.”
When delivering grain, Kaiser uses two augers to load into the front and back of the truck at the same time. An employee monitors weight from a catwalk, making sure the load doesn’t exceed the legal limit.
He used to keep a worker at the bins all the time to check grain conditions and switch fans on and off, but technology has made that role unnecessary. His bins are equipped with cables that measure moisture and temperature. He can activate fans manually, automatically or remotely to reduce moisture or temperature.
“Now I watch-dog moisture and temperature levels from my cell phone and use my phone to activate or shut down bin fans as needed,” Kaiser said. “This new system has been great.”
The high-tech monitoring system means no one needs to enter a bin to unplug blockages.
“That’s when entrapment accidents happen—when grain gets out of condition and you have to enter a full bin,” Kaiser said. “We stay out of the bins until they’re empty.”
In addition to automatic moisture and temperature control, the zero-entry power sweep is another technology that protects farm workers, Belstle said. In the past, someone had to enter the bin to unplug augers, but zero-entry sweeps eliminate that need.
“We no longer use conventional auger sweeps because zero-entry sweeps improved safety dramatically over the past 10 years,” Belstle said. “We’ve had luck with the paddle chain design. We’re adding zero-entry power sweeps to our older bins—they’re expensive but essential.”
Spreader arms are also a beneficial feature of modern-day grains bins. They operate by gravity, power-take-off or other energy sources to circulate the grain and achieve consistent quality. Fines often build up in the middle, preventing air from flowing evenly. Also, when sampling grain, operators usually pull from the center. When fines concentrate in the sample, it can lead to a lower price. MFA doesn’t used spreaders, but Belstle said it might be a good option for on-farm bins.
On-farm vs. elevator storage
With continued record carryover in grain stocks, don’t look for the trend toward adding metal bins to slow down, Belstle said. While he’s understandably biased in favor of commercial elevators, he admits that the industry needs all the storage it can get right now with growing farm sizes and increasing yields.
Belstle summarized these benefits of on-farm storage:
- When you store your own grain, you may gain more control over when you can sell it, allowing you to optimize the price.
- MFA continues to update grain facilities to speed up loading, but farmers with their own bins can avoid waiting in line at elevators during harvest.
- You can avoid paying elevator storage fees. But keep in mind, there’s an up-front cost to purchasing bins, and you must also pay for energy to run fans.
- You may also gain tax and depreciation advantages.
On the other hand, Belstle continued, storing grain at an elevator also has its advantages. First of all, adding on-farm bins can be expensive. W.B. Young’s most popular on-farm size stores more than 30,000 bushels of corn, and a standard model costs around $50,000 or about $1.50 per bushel, according to Manager Randy Sleeper.
“A smaller 10,000-bushel bin costs more per bushel to erect—about $2.50,” Sleeper said. “Automated technology can add as much as $12,000 to the price, and you must also pay an annual subscription.”
The cost of steel has gone up 15 to 20 percent since November, he added, as markets reacted to the threat of U.S. tariffs on steel.
Other benefits to elevator storage include:
- Quality assurance — A commercial elevator takes on responsibility for moisture or insect damage to the stored grain. In May, because of the huge 2017 harvest, MFA continued to store grain on the ground in some locations, covering it with special tarping, Belstle said. “We work to get grain off the ground before warm weather can impact quality,” he explained, “but we guarantee that when you sell your grain, you’ll be covered for the same quality that you brought in.”
- Liability — Storing grain at an elevator relieves farmers of safety and worker liability concerns. “There are more bin-related deaths on the farm than at commercial elevators,” Zdrojewski said. MFA elevator staff members are also trained and licensed to fumigate grain to control insects, a hazardous practice that is best left to professionals, Zdrojewski said.
- Marketing — Every MFA location has a marketing expert to help you sell grain at the optimum price.
“Not every farmer has the time or the knowledge to manage grain storage,” Belstle says. “MFA elevators print out daily reports from different levels in every bin to measure things like moisture and temperature. When we see a hot spot, for example, fans automatically switch on.”
Zdrojewski shares Belstle’s preference for elevators.
“If you lose a tank of grain on the farm, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “Commercial elevators are better equipped to manage grain and maintain quality. A growing number of farmers use their own semi trucks to haul grain, and they can shop around to find buyers willing to pay top dollar—places like river facilities, ethanol plants and feed mills—so they may not need on-farm storage.”
What’s next for grain bins?
Expect new grain bin technology to continue to emerge, particularly in the area of safety, Zdrojewski said.
“GSI has been at farm shows demonstrating a new powered sweep, no-entry technology, but it has a ways to go before it’s on the market,” he said.
If you’re considering purchasing bins, W.B. Young’s Randy Sleeper suggests a way to save money. Traditionally, farmers wait until July or so to purchase, when they can estimate yield.
“Today, farmers are purchasing metal bins earlier,” Sleeper said. “When harvest ends in November, look for manufacturers to come out with incentives to buy early.”
For more information on bin safety, search online: “OSHA Fact Sheet: Worker Entry into Grain Storage Bins.”
What to look for when buying steel bins
Nathan Belstle considers many factors before purchasing steel bins for MFA Incorporated:
- The gauge of steel. The heavier the steel, the sturdier the bin.
- The grade of steel. Go for high tensile, he said.
- The number and strength of steel rings. Rings are heaviest at the bottom of the bin and get thinner as they rise. Considering ring strength is important but can be complicated.
- The roof’s load capacity. Belstle said he looks for bins that can take up to 100,000 pounds of weight so catwalks can be added to the roof rather than on the side.
- How they’re galvanized. Manufacturers coat steel to prevent rust. The thicker the mil, the better the resistance.
- How they’re stiffened. Belstle prefers bins with external supports that make them easier to clean out compared to those with internal channels. “Older bins sometimes crumpled from the weight of grain,” he said. “Bin manufacturers started adding internal supports, but grain, debris and moisture tend to build up in the channels, leading to rust. These days, externally stiffened bins are mandatory.”
Concrete elevators endure
Concrete elevators remain ubiquitous, especially along railroad tracks and at river-loading facilities. Most were built from the 1950s to the 1970s, said Nathan Belstle of MFA Incorporated.
“Concrete elevators fill faster and last longer, but metal bins last up to 50 years,” Belstle said. “Metal is more flexible and usually more cost-effective than concrete. They also go up faster.”
MFA Incorporated has focused on steel bins lately, with one notable exception. In 2017, MFA completed a large concrete storage elevator at its new rail facility in Hamilton, Mo.
“Even there,” Belstle explained, “we added three 30,000-bushel steel tanks to use for segregating grain that doesn’t meet our criteria, and several 5,000-bushel steel loading tanks for short-term storage.”
Concrete bins hold an advantage when it comes to strong wind, including tornadoes, but metal bins are tougher than they used to be.
“Out of hundreds of steel bins, storm damage affected just 10 of MFA’s bins in the last five years,” Belstle reported.