For many Mid-South farmers, producing a corn crop may not be the biggest challenge they face in a season. It’s when harvest happens, when long lines at the elevator combined with Mother Nature can put a season-long effort at risk.
Transporting and storing grain at harvest has become even more stressful recently with increases in corn production due to improvements in corn yield and higher acreage due to high corn prices. The sheer volume of a good corn harvest can dwarf other harvests.
According to USDA, corn acreage in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana has doubled over the last five years, going from 830,000 acres in 2006 to 1.62 million acres in 2010. During this same time, corn production in the three states increased from 102 million bushels annually to 230 million bushels.
Two Mississippi corn producers have managed to stay ahead of harvest logjams the past couple of season, using cost-effective movable grain hoppers and tractors to move corn to their grain bins, allowing grain trucks to stay on the road to elevators.
When Friars Point, Miss., corn producer John McKee starts corn harvest, he’s looking to keep his combines running from the moment the dew dries in the morning.
McKee produces anywhere from 600 to 800 acres of corn each year and also farms cotton, soybeans and wheat. His corn harvest operation includes a Case IH 7088 combine, grain cart, a Rol-Hopper transportation system (which is manufactured by SafTCart in Clarksdale, Miss., and includes three movable hoppers and a trailer), a Case IH MX 285 tractor for hauling the hoppers and a grain truck. He has 50,000 bushels of on-farm grain storage.
When harvest begins, “our first dump will be in the grain truck, which will immediately head to the elevator. If the lines are backed up at the elevator, we start going to our grain bins.”
To do this, McKee unloads from the field into modular steel hoppers, which hold about 1,000 bushels of corn each. The MX 285 tractor driver will then load the hopper onto a trailer for transport, using the tractor’s hydraulics to pull the hopper onto the trailer bed.
McKee might haul the hoppers immediately to the grain bin or leave them in the field to dump the next morning while the combine is being serviced. Since McKee is within sight of the local elevator in Friars Point, he will occasionally put a tractor and hopper in line at the elevator.
“You can use one of your regular on-farm workers to handle it,” McKee said.
To transfer grain from the hopper to the bin, McKee uses a rollaway auger. “Once it starts dumping, we don’t have to reposition the tractor. It sits there until we dump the whole thing out.”
Renting or purchasing more grain trucks would also help to relieve harvest time bottlenecks, but trucks can bring their own set of problems. “Trucks are a more expensive system,” McKee said. “That’s not to mention maintenance, insurance, tags and all the regulations involved with running a truck.”
“When there is a lot of grain planted, it’s hard to find trucks,” said Scott Flowers, who farms around 1,500 acres of corn, along with cotton, soybeans and wheat around Clarksdale, Miss. “Also, the rental rates keep going up based on need. When everybody wants them, they can charge you more. Custom hauling costs range from 25 cents to 30 cents a bushel. In 200-bushel corn, your hauling costs will range from $50 to $60 an acre.”
Flowers’s grain harvesting operation includes two John Deere 9770 combines, with six-row corn headers, one Rol-Hopper system, grain carts, a John Deere 8270 tractor for hauling the hoppers, three grain trucks and 150,000 bushels of grain storage.
Flowers’ objective at corn harvest is the same as McKee’s — to keep combines running. “Usually, we’re going to have 100,000-plus bushels of corn at harvest that we can’t store on-farm. We try to take that grain to a local elevator with two or three of our grain trucks. That gets our contracts filled.”
At the same time, Flowers is hauling the grain hoppers to his bins. “Otherwise, there’s no way that three trucks can keep up with two combines. So we’re able to get our contracts filled, getting rid of the grain that we can’t store, while at the same time hauling the hoppers to the grain bin. We have enough hauling capacity to keep the combines going.”
At Flowers’s grain bin, the hauling trailer is tilted, and grain is dumped through a chute at one end of the hopper into the pit.
The objective for Flowers and McKee is to keep grain moving ahead of their combines. “Our No. 1 goal throughout harvest is to get grain out of the field and into some storage,” McKee said. “We do whatever we have to do to keep that combine running.”
But other factors do come into play. For example, the potential for dockage due to higher corn moisture levels corn may prompt Flowers to haul more corn to the grain bins than the elevator.
“The hopper system really pays for itself when we’re trying to go to both the elevator and the grain bins at the same time,” Flowers said.
Jason Ward, Extension associate in the Ag and Biological Engineering Department at Mississippi State University, has not researched the hopper system, but notes, “Conceptually, it makes sense. If the header of that combine is not full of grain, you’re not making money. The more you can keep that combine moving, the better off you’re going to be.”
Other solutions to alleviating logjams at grain include the use of grain bags. Ward is currently working on an in-depth study to research the potential for quality degradation in the bags. Results from the first year of the study will be available in several months.
“We know grains are here and we don’t think they’re going anywhere,” Ward said. “We have to figure out how to manage (grain handling) in an emerging grain market. We have to get tools in people’s hands and let them figure it out. At Extension, we’re really taking it seriously to make sure these tools are evaluated and give the producers as much unbiased information as possible.”