Grain dryers can send farmers into field earlier

July 8, 2011 By    

Brent Smith witnessed one too many casualties of his corn crop during the 2010 harvest that he altered his grain-drying tactics on his Indiana farm, featuring one notable propane equipment purchase.

“The amount of grain I lost in the field was significant,” the veteran farmer says. “I don’t want that to happen again.”

Last February, after his E. Brent Smith farm in Zionsville, Ind., had been hit with significant field losses due to the crop’s low moisture level at harvest, Smith made the decision to purchase a second grain dryer. He reasoned that another dryer would enable him to harvest his corn earlier and help him avoid ear shatter, where the kernels are knocked to the ground and left wasted in the field.

“I got a couple more thousand acres of corn than I have had in the past, and I’m planning on drying it wetter to get more harvest days in,” Smith says. “Last year I had some corn that I harvested at 12 percent moisture, and the field losses were horrible. The reason I got the second dryer is to have more drying capacity so I can harvest faster when it’s a little wetter. And when the corn’s wetter, you have less of that shatter.”

Smith, who started farming in 1973, was seeking added capacity and fuel efficiency when he selected a Grain Systems (GSI) model T-24100 propane tower dryer for his 9,700-acre family operation about 20 miles north of Indianapolis. The dryer was just installed in June. Now Smith has more than doubled his drying capacity and looks to get 600 bushels per hour more with the GSI dryer. His model can dry 2,400 bushels per hour at 20 percent grain harvest moisture and 1,440 at 25 percent moisture.

“Farmers are getting more and more acres per farm, and everything needs to be done in a more timely fashion, so we’re getting more and more capacity,” says Smith, who estimates that he will burn 100,000 gallons of propane, supplied by Co-Alliance LLP, for drying this year.

“Yields are going up per acre, and we’re trying to harvest more acres per hour. That means a lot more bushels per hour that need to be dried,” he says.

Turning up the heat
The added efficiency of today’s propane grain dryers are allowing farmers such as Smith to harvest earlier and without worry of the added propane they might consume in the process. GSI and grain dryer manufacturer Mathews Co. have partnered with the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) to test and document these improvements in propane grain-drying equipment to help farmers meet a greater demand.

“With so much more corn to be harvested today and the same window of time to get the product out, farmers need the technology to dry it,” says Mark Leitman, director of agriculture programs for PERC. “More corn potentially means more need for drying, especially with big farmers, who have to start early and get their crop out. It makes sense to have new, more efficient technology.”

PERC sought GSI and Mathews Co. to help them develop new propane-fueled grain dryers and enhance existing models to improve performance. According to PERC, the companies’ new dryers rely on propane to distribute heat and dry grain more evenly, increasing harvest quality and productivity while improving fuel efficiency.

“PERC contacted us in 2008 offering information and help with all things propane related,” says Gary Woodruff, conditioning technical and information manager for GSI. “We had wanted to test and prove how much our features lowered the cost of grain drying, but the costs of doing so with an outside party prohibited this from being done.”

With a $15,000 grant from PERC, GSI launched a two-year research project with help from Purdue University that culminated last year. Energy performance tests were conducted on already-commercialized GSI models – the F-24100 tower dryer as well as 2326 standard and 2326 X-Stream on-farm dryers.

Added efficiency
Grain-dryer efficiency is measured by the amount of energy (in Btus) required to remove one pound of water from the grain. In the 1970s and 80s, about 3,500 Btus were required to remove one pound of water from the grain, Leitman notes. The research shows that newer technology in today’s propane grain dryers has helped cut that energy output by more than half.

“We’re literally drying twice as many bushels with a gallon of propane today with certain technology as we could 20 or 30 years ago,” Leitman says. “That is a key message.”

GSI analyzed several of its grain-drying technologies: grain inverters, an X-Stream configuration and the tower dryer cooling heat recovery system.

The grain inverter technology, which comes standard on all GSI tower dryers and as an option on its portable stack dryers, inverts the column except for the outer 2 inches of grain during the drying process. This maximizes grain quality and minimizes fuel use and operating costs. The X-Stream configuration, available as an option on GSI’s larger portable stack dryers, utilizes fans and heaters alternating at both ends of the dryer to distribute heat more evenly. The heat recovery system captures heat that normally might escape from the dryer.

“The PERC/Purdue testing was a major factor for adding these features to the commercial corn side of the business and on the smaller dryers as well as the very largest,” Woodruff notes.

GSI was able to collect hard data from an independent source to show how farmers can save by drying earlier with propane.

Studies showed that the X-Stream models perform about 10 percent more efficiently than previous GSI non-X-Stream models and other dryers with the fans on one end. The grain inverters reduce costs by 10 to 15 percent compared to a standard dryer, and the heat recovery system can reduce drying costs by 25 to 35 percent. And Woodruff says these enhancements also can combine to reduce drying costs by about 50 percent compared to a typical dry and cool portable dryer from the 1970s while improving grain quality. Now that the project is complete, GSI plans to make the results public over the next year.

“Most farmers are not aware that they need to spend money on propane and drying in order to maximize their income. They don’t want to believe that they’re leaving grain on the ground,” Woodruff says. “Drying their crop and getting it in the bin before it gets down to 18 percent [moisture] means more money in their pocket.”

Jason Newton won’t shy away from drying his corn this year. He might not have a choice. The co-owner of Richards Elevator in Taylorsville, Ind., estimates that his GSI stack dryer with the X-Stream option and grain inverters will burn 160,000 gallons of propane this year due to greater demand and the weather. The company owns a 30,000-gallon propane tank and gets its supply from Columbus Silgas.

Richards Elevator, a grain and feed storage company that resells farmers’ products, bought the dryer in 2009 when it expanded to a second location. Now it can ship about 2.5 million bushels of product per year. That means a greater need for drying. Moreover, Newton plans to burn more gas this year because of a wet spring that caused a late planting – meaning that the grain loses natural drying time in the field and might need help come harvest.

“It has worked to our liking,” Newton says of the dryer, w
hich is estimated to burn about 120 gallons of propane per hour. “We bought the propane dryer for the efficiency, the flexibility and the ranges of things we can do with it, whether we’re mass drying or drying small amounts. It’s a 20-year difference in technology.”

Flexible operation
Mathews Co. spent $138,000 from PERC to help push the development of its Trilogy Series dryer. Five units have been sold as part of a research and development prototype program, and full availability is expected next year. The prototypes are being supported by PERC incentives through the Propane FEED (Farm Equipment Efficiency Demonstration) program. PERC is providing $5,000 to the farmers who purchased the prototypes. In exchange, the farmers will provide information about the performance and their propane use.

The flexible low-profile dryer offers three modes – all heat, traditional heat and cool, and vacuum cool and pressure heat – and is up to 30 percent more energy efficient than a traditional dryer, notes Joseph Shulfer, director of engineering and support services for Mathews Co. The dryer will come in three size models (T2030, T2440, T2850) and consume 30 to 60 gallons of propane per hour.

“The master plan for grain drying is really pretty simple – the most throughput at the minimum cost with a high-grade finished product,” says Mark Larson, a regional sales manager for Mathews Co. in Wisconsin and Illinois, noting that the company offers many grain-drying options in terms of size, fill and discharge points.

Leitman says a piece of grain-drying equipment can consume 20,000 to 50,000 gallons of propane a year, depending on usage. And he wants propane marketers to realize that they, as well as the farmers, can benefit from the more efficient grain dryers being made available today.

“It causes people to turn on grain dryers who weren’t using them before,” he adds. “Farmers make decisions to dry based on economics. If they leave the crop in the field, they run the risk of harvest losses. We hope the new technology shows them that it’s cheaper to dry a bushel of corn than it once was – and in doing so they will turn on their machine earlier than they normally would have.”

Learn more online
PERC’s partnership with the Mathews Co. is featured in a YouTube video. Visit http://tinyurl.com/profileinpartnership to learn how propane is fueling the company’s equipment advances in agriculture. Also, for more information about propane’s use in agriculture and PERC’s FEED program, visit www.agpropane.com.

Brian Richesson

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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