Silage Bag Storage Aids Kansans
Labor and trucks. That’s a big headache for numerous sunflower producers during harvest. Finding adequate labor seems to get tougher every year, and the cost of operating (or hiring) trucks travels only one way: up.
For the Schertz family, the labor/truck issues have been particularly frustrating in recent years. Father Steve and brothers Rex and Scott, who farm near the northwestern Kansas community of Winona, have traditionally hauled their sunflower crop directly to the Northern Sun crushing plant near Goodland — a distance of about 55 miles. Add to that the long unloading lines often facing drivers during the height of harvest, and it’s easy to see why the situation left the Schertzes searching for a viable alternative.
The answer came to them in 2004: place the sunflower and other crops in temporary storage in silage bags along field edges — and then transport the crops to market during the slower late fall and early winter months.
After doing some research, Scott ended up purchasing a Roto-Press bag filling machine from Sioux Automation Center in Iowa. After the crop is unloaded from the combine or grain cart into the machine, the unit uses a horizontal auger to fill the plastic silage bags. The bags are nine feet in diameter and about 300 feet long when completely full. "It works like a sausage stuffer," according to Scott. Band-style brakes on the Roto-Press wheels are applied and released as the crop is augered into the bag, thus moving the Roto-Press and attached tractor forward accordingly.
The Schertzes developed a clever system that allows the grain cart driver to start and stop the Roto-Press without leaving the cab of the grain cart tractor. A standard garage door opener turns on an air compressor, which in turn is connected to an old hydraulic combine reel cylinder. As the cylinder is aired up, it kicks in the Roto-Press tractor’s PTO. "Then, when we’re done, we hit the remote again to shut it off," Scott explains.
The bag filler "will take the crop as fast as my grain cart will unload it — probably around four or five bushels a second," he adds. Scott estimates each bag, when full, holds around 15,000 to 16,000 bushels of sunflower.
The Schertzes also use the system for temporary storage of corn, wheat and millet on their Logan County farm.
Though most of their 2004 and 2005 crops have gone into the silage bags at safe moisture levels, the Schertzes did have some ’05 wheat that was at 13.5 to 14.0% when harvested. Its condition was fine when hauled out in September. Part of one 2004 bag of sunflower was above 14%, which was obviously risky. So they rigged up a portable aeration system — blowing air into one end of the bag and drawing out at the other — "and within four days or so we had it down around 10%," Scott recounts.
The Schertzes stored part of their 2004 sunflower crop in silage bags for more than four months — without any quality problems. Scott does visit the storage sites periodically during the late fall and early winter, poking a bell probe through the bag sides to check on temperature levels. Most of the stored crops have been fine, Scott reports; and, as noted previously, "we can move air through the tube" if necessary.
In 2004, when ready to transport their contents to market, the Schertzes cut open the silage bags and pulled out the crops with a pneumatic grain conveyor. It was very laborious; so this year they designed a machine that combines a vaccuvator-type unit with a forklift to extract the crop and simultaneously roll up the bag. Though it worked very well, they’re still refining the system and may end up seeking a patent.
Scott says the silage bag storage approach has turned out to be a real win:win proposition for him, his dad and brother. They typically hire most of their trucking needs; and during sunflower harvest specifically, this new approach has allowed them to get by with three to four fewer trucks and drivers. "And I can usually hire trucks a lot cheaper in the winter than I can during the middle of harvest," he points out.
Couple that with the increased marketing flexibility and avoidance of commercial storage costs, and it’s easy to see why the Schertz family can attest, as the Roto-Press manufacturer states, that silage bags offer "an extremely effective way to store your crops." — Don Lilleboe
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