Bin monitoring has come a long way since probes on sticks and necessarily so — as the size of grain bins has grown, so has the value of their contents. One 10,000-bushel bin can surpass $100,000.
Everyone has heard horror stories of entire bins ruined, but Joy Agnew, associate vice-president of applied research for Olds College, says it’s the less dramatic downgrading of quality that actually accounts for greater overall losses for Canadian farmers.
“Losing quality isn’t as big of a hit individually, but cumulatively across all farms, there’s huge economic loss there,” she says.
Brent Elliott, acting program manager of Infestation Control and Sanitation for the Canadian Grain Commission, says catastrophic spoilage isn’t common, but it does happen.
“Sometimes not all the bins are located in the yard and folks will forget a bin that’s two miles from the farm,” he says. “Or there are older bins where the farmer doesn’t put in that monitoring because they’re using it as a temporary storage.
“All the field work, fertilizing, and managing weeds, insects and field conditions, and they finally get it to the bin and the job is only half done. They are taking an awful risk if they’re not monitoring the grain in storage.”
Stored grain is an “ecosystem” that’s dynamic and changing due to air currents and conduction changes in the bin, Elliot explains. Stored grain might be stable at one point, but that could change. Even on the Prairies in midwinter, grain can retain August’s heat in its core.
Then the problems can compound: stored grain’s high moisture and humidity are attractive to insects, particularly Cryptolestes ferrugineus — the rusty grain beetle which accounts for 95 per cent of problems with storage pests in Western Canada. Elliot says their respiration leads to condensation and further spoilage.
Preventing losses starts with monitoring, but with the explosion of new products on the market, it can be hard to know which option will be the best fit.
“Farmers are very much looking for simple, easy-to-use solutions,” says Agnew. “There might be cool new products coming out, but if they don’t work well and aren’t easy to use, farmers won’t want to adopt them.”
Olds College Smart Farm is currently collaborating with Top Grade Ag, a Calgary startup, to test its In-Bin Drying (IBD) Monitor. The product aims to help farmers better understand drying rates to optimize IBD, running fans and heaters only as needed. The product combines sensors in the outlet with a web-based app to continually measure water-removal rates. Agnew’s program is assisting with optimal sensor placement, sensor orientation and improving the algorithm to better estimate airflow rate.
“It’s going to be a very informative tool once it’s ready to roll,” she says.
Jitendra Paliwal is a professor of biosystems engineering and associate dean of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of agricultural and food sciences. He runs an imaging and spectroscopy lab at the university’s CWB Centre for Grain Storage Research. One of the lab’s “success stories,” says Paliwal, is a product called GrainViz that was developed out of a student project using electromagnetic imaging to monitor stored grain. The students started a company called 151 Research, which was later bought by AGCO.
GrainViz uses antennae installed on the inside wall of the bin to create a 3D image map of the moisture in the bin. The product is completely wireless and can show pockets of high moisture, a precondition to spoilage, says Paliwal.
“At the back end, the antennas sense the electrical properties of the grain as it changes from dry to wet, and this is the change we’re capturing. We’re now looking at developing the same technology to look into other kinds of grain storage configurations, such as concrete silos, bunkers and open pile storage.”
Paliwal says that so far, the technology costs more than traditional cable monitoring, but for larger bins the cost is justified.
Cable monitoring is now a “mature” technology, which means there are lots of comparatively priced product offerings on the market. Many different types of cables can be deployed to measure temperature, humidity and more. But Paliwal says less than 10 per cent of stored grain is monitored by cables, giving an edge to newer, more comprehensive monitoring technology.
Paliwal’s lab is embarking on a new project exploring how laser biostimulation — which is used in human cosmetic surgery — might also be able to turn back the clock on damaged grain.
Another cable-free option now available in Canada and the U.S. is Amber Agriculture’s Ace Air system, the first carbon dioxide grain-monitoring sensor for grain management.
“CO2 sensing is a predictive measurement. We use it as a direct replacement for temperature monitoring, which is a reactive measurement,” explains Amber Agriculture’s co-founder Lucas Frye.
“This one product space for grain monitoring has been very infrastructure-heavy, so to monitor temperature and moisture, to use software for running aeration systems, all these products have been [built] around hanging moisture and temperature cables inside the bins. As we built the technology, we started from first principles, looking for the least amount of pieces necessary to do the work.”
Ace Air is sold as a kit including a fan controller and CO2 sensor that farmers can self-install in around 20 minutes per bin. The product can be diagnosed, debugged and serviced remotely, says Frye. It’s available for around US$3,000.
Grain drying research
Monitoring technology goes hand-in-hand with drying technology.
Chandra Singh is applied research chair in agricultural engineering and technology at Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This year he began an Agricultural Funding Corporation-funded project focused on minimizing post-harvest losses of grain through improved on-farm grain drying.
The project will compare in-bin natural air drying, in-bin drying with heaters, high-temperature drying and combination drying (high-temperature drying followed by natural air drying in-bin.) Trials will be conducted on-farm across five sub-regions of Alberta to develop localized recommendations.
“We also want to see how we can look at the factors that influence drying and how you can optimize your drying process,” says Singh.
The project is running in collaboration with Calgary-based industry partner OPIsystems, which will offer a 20 per cent discount on its monitoring cables and control system costs for participating farmers.
Lethbridge College is currently looking for farmer participation in the trial with on-farm grain drying and storage capacity — 20,000- to 50,000-bushel bins are preferred.
“This project is unique in Western Canada,” says Singh. “No on-farm grain bin drying study has been conducted. Each grower has a different capacity — we want to consider all the variables and factors and look at what will be the best options for them.
“I want to see the reduction of post-harvest losses in Alberta,” Singh says. “Say winter starts early and there isn’t enough time to get grain off the field. With this project, we want to show that we can get the crop off early and wet and still get a quality crop.”