New automated grain-monitoring systems replace what is typically a seat-of-the-pants operation with solid science that takes the guesswork out of managing stored grain.
Companies offering automated systems say the systems can reduce drying costs, lower the risk of grain going out of condition, minimize shrink and prevent spoilage. And because the systems are automated, they reduce the labor normally required to manage natural air drying and storage.
Reducing risk was at the top of the list for Karl and Dave Eshelman when they installed automated control and monitoring systems in four new 80,000-bu. bins on their operation near Galveston, IN.
“This system was bought as an insurance tool,” Karl says. “It is a lot of dollars to have piled up in one location and not be able to keep your eye on it.”
But the monitoring system, from Integris USA, has been a moneymaker, too. The system has boosted storage earnings because the Eshelmans now are comfortable holding the corn stored in the bins longer into the summer. Drying costs are lower, too.
“Normally, we'd haul 20% of our corn in the summer,” Karl says. “Now 80% is hauled in the summer time frame. The longer you keep grain stored, the more you earn from storage. We wouldn't have dared do that in the past. You can't afford to hold $4 corn and risk it going bad.
“I think the new large on-farm bins will require these systems,” he adds. “These bins are commercial-size. You will have to have a monitoring system for risk management. A banker will require it.”
The 95% need
By some estimates, less than 5% of on-farm grain storage has a fixed monitoring and control system in place. The trend to more and larger on-farm grain storage has system manufacturers salivating at the prospect for increased sales, but they remain cautious about how rapidly farmers will adopt these sophisticated systems.
“Traditionally, farmers have bought grain storage systems based on the cost per bushel,” says Todd Sears, president of Intelliair, which markets the BinManager automated storage monitoring and control system. “Our challenge is to educate the customer about the benefits of these systems, which add to the cost. Ten years ago I didn't think I would live long enough to see farmers use a computer to run a bin management program. Now, it's beginning to happen.”
Farmers need to think like managers of commercial grain storage systems, about 90% of which use monitoring and control systems, says David Crompton, president of Canada-based OPIsystems, parent company of Integris USA, whose top-end system is called IntegrisPro.
“Many farmers haven't made the brain shift,” he says. “There is no difference between large bins being built on farms and commercial bins, size-wise. Farmers are buying commercial-sized storage, but they are not putting management systems in. You can't apply the same principles you used with a 10,000-bu. bin.”
Eli Troyer, president of AgriDry, which markets the Bullseye Bin Monitor System, says he's noted an uptick in interest in monitoring systems in recent years as ethanol plants and other buyers have increasingly demanded consistent supplies of high-quality grain.
“Elevators have sometimes found that they cannot deliver the quality that ethanol plants require” because their customers haven't paid adequate attention to stored grain, he says. “We're selling more systems than we have ever sold.”
AgriDry, and stored grain management systems in general, received a boost in 2007 when Pioneer Hi-Bred began promoting grain quality and offering a discount on Bullseye systems through its Web-based MarketPoint grain buyer and seller program.
“The goal of the program is to help our customers to be more successful,” says Joe Foresman of Pioneer. “When they deliver high-quality grain to their buyer, they are in a good position to maximize their price.
“Experience ends up being a tough teacher,” he continues. “Whether it is that silent thief, shrinkage, or spoilage on the north side of the bin, it ends up costing you. If you are able to simplify the harvest and storage process so that you preserve grain quality, it will make you money in the long run.”
Automated system basics
Although the AgriDry, Integris and Intelliair automated grain management systems differ in many respects, they have several elements in common. All three hang multiple temperature and/or moisture sensors in the bin. Data from the sensors are funneled to a computerized controller installed on the outside of the bin. The controller uses a set of operating instructions built into its software (an algorithm) to evaluate internal bin conditions, as well as temperature and humidity data from an on-site weather station, to control fans and supplemental heat, if available.
All three systems also are able to transmit and store in-bin temperature and/or moisture and other data for viewing on an office computer or a smartphone. The systems also make it possible to change operating instructions to the controller from off-site locations via a computer and/or smartphone. The three companies also offer basic systems that centralize control and monitoring functions at the bin site.
The systems differ in several respects, however. Both Integris and Intelliair systems use digital sensors, which they claim are more accurate than analog sensors and allow virtually unlimited numbers of sensors to be daisy-chained on a two-wire feed, much like CANbus systems on tractors and farm implements. AgriDry uses traditional analog thermocouples in its system. This limits the number of sensors that can be deployed, although sensor numbers are high enough to effectively monitor grain drying and long-term storage, Troyer says.
The systems also use varying methods of transmitting data from the bin site. Depending on the system, cellular- or satellite-based modems, radios or combinations of these methods are used to transfer data via the Internet or directly to an office computer. Archiving and analysis features also vary across the systems.
AgriDry Bullseye Bin Monitor
The Bullseye Bin Monitor from AgriDry uses in-bin temperature data from up to 24 sensors, as well as temperature and humidity data from an on-site weather station, to control fans for natural air and heat-supplemented drying, as well as long-term storage.
A typical system uses four thermocouple cables, each with six thermocouples spaced every 3 to 6 ft. (depending on bin height). Three of the thermocouple cables are placed around the bin perimeter, and the fourth is in the center. The company recommends a single six-thermocouple cable when using the company's grain spreader, which distributes fines and helps assure more uniform airflow through the grain mass.
The first cable includes a thermocouple placed 4 in. from the floor. The grain mass temperature from this sensor is compared to outdoor ambient temperature to determine whether the fan should be run or whether supplemental heat is needed.Continue on Page 2
Data from the controller at each bin are transferred for viewing by computer by either of two methods, depending on which option the customer chooses. The first pathway uses 900-megahertz (MHz) radios, which can transmit data up to 40 miles, depending on antenna height, terrain and other factors. This allows the operator to use a home computer to monitor and control multiple bins on multiple sites. The operator also can view data collected on the office computer from computers at other locations by using remote access software. The system also can be controlled and monitored from the bin site by plugging a laptop computer into the controller or via a built-in screen on the Bullseye controller, which most customers order.
The second pathway uses a satellite modem to transfer data to Pioneer's MarketPoint Web site, as well as an AgriDry Web site. The password-protected Web sites can be accessed by computers or smartphones via a Web interface. This eliminates the need for specialized remote access software, which also requires that the central computer is running.
Currently, this second pathway offers only monitoring capability; it can't control the Bullseye monitor. By the fall of 2009, AgriDry plans to introduce a fee-based Web site offering two-way monitoring and control, as well as enhanced data archiving and an alert-based messaging service. The messaging service will alert a multi-person contact list (via phone/text and/or e-mail) in case of a bin system malfunction or other difficulty.
The retail price for hardware for a one-cable, six-sensor system, including a satellite modem, is about $3,600, plus installation, without the Pioneer discount. Many systems are self-installed, Troyer says. For information about the Pioneer discount, search for “Pioneer MarketPoint” using a Web search engine. Click on “latest promotions” on the MarketPoint home page.
The IntegrisPro from Integris can monitor information from a virtually unlimited number of digital sensors. Typically, the controller for a 48-ft.-dia. bin would capture data from 60 temperature sensors arrayed along six cables. In addition, it would collect data from a humidity sensor at the top of the bin; temperature, pressure and humidity sensors in the fan plenum; and temperature and humidity sensors from an on-site weather station. All the data are fed into an aeration algorithm to automatically control fans for natural air and heat-supplemented drying and long-term storage.
Basing the system on digital sensors, which Integris's parent company pioneered more than a decade ago, improves accuracy and simplifies installation and servicing, Crompton says. As a result, “this system is so much more cost-effective” than analog systems, he says.
The system's digital temperature sensors are fed into a reinforced plastic housing, which allows them to be removed from inside the housing, serviced and replaced even when a bin is full. “A farmer can service it himself,” Crompton says.
Customers can add an Insector insect sensor system, which OPIsystems developed in conjunction with the USDA. The Insector system is able to detect and identify specific insects long before an infestation gets out of hand, he says.
The IntegrisPro system relays bin operating data to a farm's central computer using 900-MHz or 2.4-gigahertz (GHz) radios. Bins can be monitored and controlled from anywhere with Internet access using remote-access software. The operator can check bin conditions on site using a handheld plug-in StorMax monitor, which can capture and store up to a year's worth of bin data.
In addition to collecting ongoing data showing temperature changes through the grain, the graphical reporting system offers analysis tools. It also shows grain level and volume and includes a modeling tool that provides drying scenarios based on historic weather patterns. The owner can use this tool to design an aeration system or to determine when high-moisture grain put in a bin early in the season will dry down so bin filling can continue.
System costs typically run about $0.15/bu. for facilities with a capacity under 100,000 bu. The hardware and installation costs drop to $0.05 to $0.10/bu. on a 500,000-bu. facility. An extended warranty with ongoing call center support costs less than $0.01/bu./year. Complete systems also can be rented for about $0.02 to $0.04/bu./year, depending on facility size.
“Our goal is to offer a fully integrated solution that includes a complete technology package with follow-on services,” Crompton says. “We want to show customers how storing grain can be another profit center that can capture another 10 or 15 cents in extra value from their grain.”
The BinManager uses digital moisture and temperature sensors arrayed every 4 ft. to monitor and control natural air and heat-supplemented drying and long-term storage. A 48-ft.-dia. bin typically is outfitted with six sensor cables, each with multiple sensors to detect moisture and temperature levels in the bin.
These sensors, as well as temperature and humidity sensors in the fan plenum, and temperature and humidity sensors in an on-site weather station, feed into a bin-mounted controller. A software formula in the controller's computer drives the drying process, including fan and heater use needed to maintain conditions for long-term storage. In the future, the system also will include a laser imagery system to monitor bin filling and emptying.
Although bin-operating parameters can be set and monitored from the bin site, BinManager relies primarily on a Web interface for monitoring and adjusting control functions.
“We wanted to be Web-based so a farmer could check his grain bins wherever he has Internet access, including his Blackberry [or other Web-capable cell phone or computer],” Sears says. “It would make him more mobile.” The Web interface also reduces software-related challenges, which can occur as computer operating systems change, he adds.
Communications to and from the bin site are through a cellular modem. If several bins on the site are outfitted with BinManager systems, information from each bin is relayed wirelessly to the cellular modem for transfer to BinManager Web server computers. In addition to control and monitoring functions, the system also has an alert feature, which automatically contacts up to five individuals via telephone, e-mail or text in case of a problem at a bin site that requires immediate attention.
The cost of installing BinManager on a 48- to 60-ft.-dia. bin typically is $0.10 to $0.12/bu. of storage capacity. Systems for smaller bins cost up to $0.20/bu. In addition, BinManager charges a $495 annual fee, which covers cellular airtime and Web site access.
Trust the system
The biggest challenge after making a sale can be convincing a customer to trust the system's automated functions, Sears says. “New customers often try to out-guess the technology,” he says. “Just because the ambient air feels too humid to dry grain does not mean it is. The BinManager system takes into account the plenum air temperature and moisture levels, fan warm-up and heater availability to determine the best air to push through the grain mass. Customers often say the best thing they learn from the first year is to keep their hands off.”