Whether you’re a small, hobby farmer or the major supplier in your community, you know how important proper grain storage is. Previously, most farms stored their grain on a short-term basis, but with new technologies and techniques, storage periods of a year or more are becoming increasingly more common. And when your grain sits mostly undisturbed for lengthy periods of time—through the warm, humid summer months and then throughout the cold and dry winter months—there are some risks to consider.
Upgrading to some new equipment—a brand-new silo, hopper or aeration system, for example—will help ensure that your crops are in perfect condition throughout all four seasons, but good equipment is only a small part of the plan. You really need to make sure you’re totally equipped with the right silo storage knowledge before embarking on any year-round storage endeavor.
Proper storage year-round requires closely monitoring the temperature, moisture level and airflow of your crops to be sure that they endure long-term storage. And, if you live in a place where temperatures and humidity fluctuate wildly throughout the year, it’s important to put a plan into place to accommodate for the changing conditions. Temperatures and airflow can also make your bins more or less hospitable to outsiders, especially mites, that can compromise your stock.
At a Glance: How Seasons Affect Grain Storage
In simple terms, here’s how the changing temperatures affect your long-term grain in storage:
- In the winter, cold weather can cause grains to frost. What’s more, the grain surface absorbs additional moisture in the cold, which can lead to mite damage.
- In the spring, condensation builds up and can damage crops, while mites and other insects begin to settle in and damage the grains.
- In the summer months, the temperature heats up to an optimal level for insects and mold growth, so mitigating that is extremely important.
- In the fall, you have to get back to preventing condensation that occurs due to temperature fluctuation, while also finding ways to maximize storage space.
With the following tips, you’ll be able to combat all of these seasonal issues to ensure that your grain stays in great shape throughout the year, even if you leave it in the bin for 12 months or longer.
If left unmanaged, crops stored throughout the year will go through some extreme temperature fluctuations and could even experience frost if you live in northern regions. The biggest consideration during winter storage is controlling the moisture level inside the silo. When stored at the proper temperature and kept at an ideal moisture level, grain stays in optimal condition to ward off mites. Managing moisture requires you to pay close attention to the temperature.
1. Keep it at Optimal Temperature—Although grain is relatively good at insulating, you need to pay close attention to the grain stored near the silo’s walls. The grain stored in the center will stay at roughly the same temp as it was when you siloed it during the warmer season. When temperatures aren’t evenly distributed, the crops become dry and may go out of condition. To combat this, ensure that you’re maintaining grain temperatures within 15 degrees Fahrenheit of the average monthly temperature outside.
2. Check on it Every Two Weeks—The most important thing to note about long-term grain storage year-round is that you need to occasionally monitor it, not just during critical seasons but also in the winter. According to a paper published in Agricultural Engineers’ Digest, you should check on stored grain every two weeks during the winter. During your checks, turn on the fan and identify any odors, feel the grain and monitor for any signs of insect damage.
3. Aerate and Cool—The temperature at which you aerate and cool your grain for the winter really depends on where you live. As mentioned, you need to keep crops’ temperatures close to the average outdoor temperature. Start your aeration cycle when the average daily temperature drops to 10 degrees cooler than the grain. This will help keep the grain dry and prevent the cold weather from damaging it. Note that different grains are safe at different moisture levels, so be sure to aerate to meet the needs of the specific crops you’re storing.
4. Mitigate Mites—As mentioned, winter is prime time for mites in the silo because they prefer grain with a higher moisture content. To prevent this, be sure to keep surface moisture to below 13 percent—as the surface moisture decreases, the mite population will, too. In some instances, you may be able to use chemical mite control solutions if the buyer allows it. But, by and large, the best possible way to keep your crops mite-free is to keep them as dry as possible.
When spring rolls around, our attention shifts to the fields. But it’s also an important time for any stored grain, as the rising temperatures can affect the quality of your harvest. The primary reason for this is because condensation—which builds up when the weather warms up outside and meets the cool grain inside the bin—can damage or even spoil your grain. Just like in the winter, proper spring grain storage relies on a close monitoring and adjustment of both temperature and moisture.
1. Aerate Again—If you intend to store the grain into the hot, summer months, you’ll need to send it through another aeration cycle. Aerating, of course, helps keeps your crops dry, which can accommodate for any moisture that accumulates due to condensation. During spring warm-up, you should be running your fan continuously to prevent trapped condensation—especially in places that you might not be able to visibly identify—from spoiling the entire harvest.
2. Warm it Up—Warming up the grains in your bin is a good solution for helping them adjust to the changing temperatures, but it’s not necessarily right for all scenarios. Generally speaking, if you’re coming out of a particularly cold winter and see frost well into the early spring, then warming the crops is a smart approach. If grain is frozen, thaw it by moving a warming zone through the grain as soon the temperatures outside are above freezing for a steady week or so. If you plan to sell your grain by summer—and if the grain hasn’t frozen—then you can skip the warming process.
3. Check on it Weekly—By the spring months, you should be checking the quality of your grains on a weekly basis. One important thing to monitor is the feel and moisture of your grains. If they feel damp or tacky at the surface or have formed a crust, that’s a sign that there’s significant moisture migration that could be affecting the grain. Make sure that you’re checking often during the warming zone progress as well.
4. Apply Cap-Out Treatments—Even though the pervasiveness of insects peaks in the summertime, surface treatments shouldn’t be applied in the summer because they’re often not effective when large infestations become an issue. Apply cap-out treatments during the spring before grains are warmed above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help ward off insects that enter the silo or feed on the grain surface in the late spring and summer.
If you plan to keep grains stored throughout the summer, you need to be sure that the environment is unfavorable for bugs and that it’s cooled to the right temperature to prevent damage, especially in the top portion of the bin. While historically summer and early fall were times to market grains and empty bins, now many on-farm storage bins stay full year-round. This brings some debate about how to properly store and protect stored grain in the summer, but experts can agree on a few key approaches.
1. Keep it Cool—While there’s some debate about the ideal summer grain storage temperature, experts are beginning to agree that it really should hover around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason for this is because cooler temperatures are less hospitable to insect infestation and mold growth, which flourish at the traditionally recommended higher temps. Some experts go so far as to say that
keeping the grain as cool as possible is the best approach.
2. Check on it Weekly—Like in the spring, you should be closely monitoring the quality, temperature, moisture and insect prevalence of your crops in the summer. It’s a good idea to establish a specific day and time to measure the quality of your grain so that you don’t forget, especially when most of your attention is devoted to crops in the field.
3. Ventilate—While full-bin aeration is important in the summertime, too (especially in the upper portion of the bin, roughly every three weeks), it’s important to think about specific places that are likely to get hotter than others. In a standard bin, that’s usually in the space between the grain and the bin’s roof. Ensuring that the top layers stay cool through proper roof ventilation will help prevent these higher layers from getting too warm throughout the day.
4. Consider Unloading—Another good way to prevent the top portion of your bin storage from overheating is to remove the packed grain from the top, especially if you have a cone-shaped silo. Unfortunately, you probably can’t upgrade to a brand-new, flat top silo—although it would certainly help prevent the top of your stock from heating—but you can reduce the risk of warmed crops by unloading the top quarter or third of the grain in the peak of the summer, when temperatures are the highest.
Out of all the seasons, grain storage seems to be the most challenging in the fall. A big reason for that is because there simply isn’t enough room for the quantity of grains that need to be stored this time of year. For that reason, maximizing your grain storage space may be an important aspect of your storage strategy. Of course, once you accommodate for your harvest, you still need to give it the best possible conditions to thrive.
- Maximize Space—With record grain harvests, farmers need to consider the best ways to maximize silo space and find other solutions for excess grains. For some, that means opting for alternatives such as grain storage bags, bulk containers and even commercial storage. If you think that long-term grain storage is likely to become your M.O. in seasons moving forward, then it’s extremely important to consider adding more on-farm grain storage to prevent wasted crops.
- Aerate—Aeration is also important in the fall months, especially when the temperatures dip. Just like in the winter, the bin’s walls can cause the exterior layers to cool faster than the interior ones. Therefore, it’s important to properly aerate to ensure that warm grain masses don’t accumulate in the center of the silo. While you aerate, be sure that the top grain mass is leveled off to prevent spoiled grain at the peak.
- Check on it Weekly—With the exception of winter, you should be checking on your grain weekly for the rest of the year. There is a caveat, though. You should start off your fall storage strategy by checking the grain once a week to see how it handles the fluctuating fall temperatures in that particular bin. When temperatures settle later into the season, you can drop your checks down to once every two weeks or so.
- Cool Gradually—Experts recommend moving at least one, but preferably two cooling zones through the grain to remove field heat and ensure that moisture doesn’t accumulate in one area over the bin. While focusing on gradual cooling in the fall is extremely important, it’s also key to focus on initial cooling. Don’t skimp on fan operation, and make sure that fans are still running during rainy, humid or warm weather.
The Bottom Line
Long-term grain storage is certainly a viable–and sometimes required–option for many farmers, especially when the harvest is good. A combination of the right storage equipment and knowledge will help ensure that your crops stay in marketable and consumable shape from January through December, effectively saving you time and money throughout the year.