Alberta farmers learned the hard way last fall that wet harvests go hand in hand with grain drying — and the costs that come with that.
But Alberta’s main crop commissions are looking for ways to trim those costs as harvests trend later and the need to condition grain goes up.
“There has been an increase in excess moisture conditions over the past several years, so farmers are having to dry grain more often to improve the quality and storage capability,” said Shannon Sereda, Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley’s government relations and policy manager, who is leading the project on behalf of Team Alberta.
“We want to help farmers better understand how they can improve the costs of their conditioning operation.”
The new three-year study will look at 40 grain conditioning systems across the province to pinpoint how much farmers are spending drying their grain each year. The initial estimates are “pretty substantial,” said Sereda.
“We did a benchmarking study, and some of the preliminary data estimates that, last year, the fuel costs for grain conditioning activities in Alberta were between $25 million to $35 million,” said Sereda.
With the carbon tax included, natural gas costs about $5.50 per gigajoule while propane is close to $22 per gigajoule. In a 5,000-cubic-feet-per-metre system where the temperature needs to rise by 10°, those fuel costs will run between $0.70 per hour and $2.50 per hour.
But fuel type isn’t the only factor. Different systems use different volumes of fuel and have different drying times.
For instance, costs for heated air-drying range from 20 to 30 cents per bushel, while natural air-drying with supplemental heat is around six to 10 cents per bushel. But natural air-drying takes longer. Heated air-drying 5,000 bushels of grain with propane, for instance, costs about $25 an hour, and it could take between half a day and a full day, for a total propane cost of between $375 and $600.
However, in a natural air-drying system, the propane might cost about $2 an hour (because the air isn’t being heated as much), but it might take anywhere between five to 21 days to dry.
“That’s a significant cost to their operation, so that’s what really drove us to look at better understanding the numbers and how to change that — how can we help farmers improve what they’re already doing?” said Sereda.
“We want to help inform them of what the best way to do that is.”
There are some “gaps in the data” around how to lower those costs.
“We don’t have a good read on how prominent conditioning is in the province and what kind of systems there are,” said Sereda. “We’re hoping to evaluate the energy usage and efficiency of different types of on-farm grain conditioning systems.”
The goal of the three-year study is to provide a clear set of guidelines for making decisions on grain conditioning systems and uses.
“This is another mechanism to help ensure the quality of our grain going into the system,” she said.
That’s ultimately the point of grain conditioning, said Ron Palmer, a retired University of Regina professor who continues to conduct research into grain drying.
“You want to reduce your costs, but you want to make darn sure your grain is safe from spoilage,” said Palmer. “Everything is tied up in that bin of grain, so you need to make sure that’s protected.”
New technology is making that easier.
“For years, people didn’t understand what was going on in the bin, but now, there’s a much clearer idea of what’s happening in the bin,” he said. “We’re no longer guessing.”
But that doesn’t always mean farmers are using their grain conditioning systems efficiently or effectively, he added. It’s one thing to know that the bottom of the bin always dries first, while the top layer seems to hold its moisture “forever.” It’s another thing to decide to stop overdrying the bottom to get the top dry.
“We’re spending a lot of time, effort, and money to get those last few bushels on the top layer in a dry condition,” said Palmer. “You want to use Mother Nature to your best advantage so that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to condition your grain to the point that it’s safe from spoiling.
“You only want to turn your fan on when you need to.”
The study should help pinpoint some of those best management practices, said Sereda.
“We’ll be measuring the actual energy usage so that we can better understand what’s going on in the province and create a way to move forward with education and extension for our farmers.”
The research team — which includes the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) and 3D Energy — is looking for 40 farmers across Alberta who operate one or more grain conditioning systems. Eligible applicants will be contacted for an intake interview, and the selected participants will work closely with the project team to monitor their grain conditioning activities and energy use over three years.
All data will be aggregated and remain confidential, though participants will receive expert recommendations on how to make the most of their grain conditioning systems.
“Farmers who are involved in the study will be able to get individualized reports back on how efficient their systems are and how they can make improvements to their existing system,” Sereda said.
“We’re providing something tangible that farmers can use to improve the profitability of their operation.”