To some, new research on wireless sensors and automated fans for grain bins may seem like just another technical study.
But there’s big stakes in play — an opportunity to move up harvest by a week or even two, says Chandra Singh.
“When I joined Lethbridge College in 2019 there was a very early snow (during harvest) and many producers could not get their crops off the fields. It either spoiled in the field or it spoiled in the bin,” said Singh, the college’s applied research chair in agricultural engineering and technology.
The so-called Harvest from Hell saw crops on millions of Prairie acres left in the field that fall, with a cost to farmers estimated in the billions of dollars.
“Such huge risks to the crops can be minimized by harvesting crops as soon as they reach maturity and grain can be artificially dried,” said Singh.
But key to that is finding a more accurate way to measure grain temperature and moisture because as the saying goes, ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’
Singh offers a hypothetical example to illustrate that.
“(When a) crop is physically mature at higher moisture than required for safe storage or to sell at straight grain moisture, wheat can be harvested at 18 to 19 per cent moisture and the excess four to five per cent can be removed by artificial drying. This will allow a one- to two-week earlier harvest.”
But having proper data is critical and that will be a key focus of a $576,000 study by Singh and his team, which will use wireless smart sensing technology to monitor grain storage conditions.
Even prior to the research, Singh can identify some clear advantages of wireless monitoring compared to, for example, hand-held cable reading devices. With the latter, someone needs to hook up a reader to the cables to extract the data and then either take notes or connect the reader to a computer to obtain it.
However, wireless sensors monitor the moisture and temperature of grain in near real time and producers can access that info anywhere they have access to the internet.
“You can simply log in and see the grain temperature and moisture from the cloud using the browser on your cellphone, tablet or your desktop,” said Singh.
Remote viewing is possibly the most unique feature of these wireless sensor systems, said Singh, who has conducted previous research on the tech in Australia and with partners in Canada and the U.S.
“Any time you’re tracking in real time you have less risk of spoilage. Generally, you don’t see what’s really going on behind that steel wall unless there’s smoke coming out or something else really, really bad. They are a very critical part of grain management.”
They’re priced similarly to other in-bin sensor solutions, he added.
“Many companies are now getting into this area, and because of the competition the tech gets cheaper day by day like other technologies. They cost somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 but if you look at it from a risk perspective that’s between two to five per cent of the cost of the bin.”
Singh also used an advanced automated fan and heater control system in his research. This system makes a ‘decision’ to run the fan based on grain moisture and temperature levels when ambient air with drying potential is available.
“Supplemental heat from the low-temperature heater is added to the ambient air if humidity is too high,” he said.
Volunteers needed for study
Singh is seeking 15 to 20 farmers in his home province to help with the study and needs them to sign up this month so everything can be set up in time for harvest. He wants to have bins (sized between 20,000 and 50,000 bushels) from across the province as conditions vary widely.
Singh wants to study a variety of drying methods: natural air, aeration fans with supplemental low-temperature heat, high-temperature fast drying and various combinations of all three. The high-temperature fast-drying data will largely be used to see how it fits in the context of safer methods.
“The fuel cost of high-heat drying is high and there are also quality questions when subjecting grain to high temperatures,” he said.
However, theoretically it could be used as part of a graduated system of drying grain.
“You don’t need to use a high-temperature dryer to dry your grain from 17 to 14.5 per cent. What you can do is harvest at 18 to 20 per cent moisture, dry two to three per cent with the high-temperature dryer and then you use natural air to dry it down to your target, say 14.5 per cent.”
Spoilage isn’t the only factor Singh will be looking at.
“We want to look at the quality data when using different drying methods. How do they affect the quality of the grain inside?”
The study is jointly funded by Alberta Wheat, Results Driven Agriculture Research, Alberta Innovates, the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission.
Jeff Melchior is a contributor to the Alberta Farmer Express. His article originally appeared in the July 12, 2021 issue.