Optical sorters can add value to grain by taking bad stuff out

Optical sorters, used to remove unwanted material in grain, are constantly improving and becoming more affordable, says Dale Alderson of Intel Seed.

Nowadays a sorter can remove nearly 100 per cent of the ergot in a cereal crop, take wild oats out of tame ones and dramatically reduce the percentage of fusarium-damaged kernels in wheat.

“One of the markets that we see as a pretty good opportunity is taking gluten — wheat and barley — out of oats,” Alderson said during a recent visit. “We can do that very effectively.”

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There’s a premium price for gluten-free oats in the celiac market, Alderson said.

Intel Seed, a relatively new pedigreed seed seller and custom grain cleaner, also sells AMVT optical sorters. Prices for the Chinese-built machines run at US$175,000 for a 10-chute version to US$99,000 for a three-chute model. Seven- and five-chute machines cost US$147,000 and US$128,000, respectively.

Don Campbell, another Intel Seed partner, said each chute can clean about 100 bushels of grain an hour, although volumes vary depending on how much material has to be removed and how difficult it is to do. Ergot bodies, which are black, are easier to remove than fusarium-damaged kernels, for example.

Intel Seed runs all the grain it cleans through traditional grain-cleaning equipment first, including a gravity table, which helps separate heavier material from lighter.

“You clean ahead of it so at the end of the day you get the colour sorter to do one or two jobs,” Alderson said. “Our sorter also sorts by shape.”

The barley on the right started off as ergot-infested screenings with no value and an optical sorter virtually removed all the ergot turning it into grain that could be fed to cattle. The bag on the left is what was left.

The barley on the right started off as ergot-infested screenings with no value and an optical sorter virtually removed all the ergot turning it into grain that could be fed to cattle. The bag on the left is what was left.
photo: Allan Dawson

Standard

Years ago, gravity tables were a new innovation but eventually became a standard part of the grain-cleaning process.

“Now nobody runs without one and I think colour sorters are becoming the same way,” Campbell said. “As the technology gets better and the price comes down, it makes it more affordable for cereal grains, whereas before it was more for speciality niche markets.”

This winter Intel Seed was busy processing winter wheat infested with kernels damaged by fusarium head blight. It would come in with 12 per cent damaged kernels and go out at one per cent.

“It’s really used for upgrading grain,” Alderson said. “It’s increasing the selling value of the grain.”

Pedigreed seed growers and retailers and inland terminal operators are potential optical sorter buyers, but Alderson said they’re a natural for organic farmers because they can’t use herbicides for weed control. Moreover, organic grains earn big premiums adding incentive to get as much salable product as possible.

Intel Seed automated its seven-chute sorter, so it can operate unattended. However, a limiting factor is bin space.

Monitored remotely

The sorting process can be monitored remotely via cellphone or laptop. Sensors shut things down if there’s a problem.

Automating the system cost Intel Seed about $40,000. Alderson said it probably paid for itself in a year through reduced labour costs.

Besides its seven-chute sorter, Intel Seed has a three-chute model for demonstration and training purposes. Prospective buyers can bring in a five-gallon pail of grain and run it through to see how it performs.

Alderson said their sorter is user friendly. An operator can hand pick material to be removed and do the same with what’s to be removed, then the machine takes a picture of both.

“The machine automatically calibrates itself for the initial setting and then you just increase or decrease the sensitivity,” Campbell said.

“They have a camera in front and back so if a kernel is bad on one side you can detect it. Plus you can put in shape and length and thickness. Besides the colour sort I believe there are eight different parameters that you can put in and it can sort just one or all eight at the same time.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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