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Grain Monitoring Tools Help Farmers Keep Grain Healthy

In today’s grain market, farmers can’t afford to lose even a single bushel of stored grain. Yet, keeping a crop healthy when it’s stored longer and in larger bins continues to be a problem that plagues the industry: About $12 billion in grain is lost to spoilage every year.

While temperature cables hung strategically inside the bin to detect hot spots caused by grain respiration, moisture, insect infestation, mold, or fungus have offered farmers some solace, adoption of the technology has remained low.

gaining better insights

According to Naeem Zafar, around 30% of the grain being stored worldwide is monitored by some form of technology; most measure temperature, and only a few measure moisture. Other experts estimate that percentage is far lower. 

“Most of those are in the U.S.,” says Zafar, who is the cofounder and CEO of TeleSense. “Those figures are much worse in Latin America and Africa. Even in Australia, farmers are so spread out, they only check their grain storage every couple of weeks. A lot can go wrong during that time.”

For those who do invest in temperature cables, the trouble, says Roger Price, is that the technology only gives insight into a very small segment of the bin.

“Because of the way cables are placed, there may be a problem that they don’t detect,” explains Price, national sales manager for GSI. “I know of a situation where there was a fire in a bin and the temperature cable that was only 10 feet away read 90ºF. Grain is an excellent insulator.”

Both TeleSense and GSI have developed solutions to give the industry a clearer view of stored grain so potential issues can be detected before they negatively impact your bottom line.

iot grain storage

Through its proprietary sensor that collects data on the grain’s condition, California-based TeleSense (telesense.com) is using the Internet of Things (IoT) to continuously monitor temperature and moisture in stored grain. 

“We are about using artificial intelligence to predict how to make your decisions based on data – such as when to sell grain, when to hang on to grain, when to move grain, when to fumigate grain, and when to blend grain,” relates Zafar. “In order to do these predictive analytics, you need data.”

For storage facilities already equipped with temperature cables, the start-up has developed a wireless junction box that interfaces with an existing setup and converts it into a wireless monitoring and predictive solution. As data is collected, it is sent to TeleSense’s cloud-based platform for analysis. 

“We wanted to preserve the investment farmers had made in existing cables while upgrading them to the latest wireless IoT technology,” says Zafar. 

For units that have no temperature cables, TeleSense has developed a SensorBall, which is about the size of a softball. You simply toss it into a grain pile, silo bag, horizontal bunker, or vertical storage.

“Depending on how much detail you want, we recommend three to four balls per 10,000 bushels of grain,” explains Zafar. “They will communicate wirelessly with the on-site Gateway (pictured below), which transmits the data to the cloud for processing.”

If any readings are outside of the user-defined parameters, an alert is sent via text message or email. 

“Machine-learning algorithms also provide recommendations on when to fumigate, how long to store grain, and what the quality will be like in the future to help farmers decide when to sell,” Zafar explains.

Gaining greater insights into what’s happening inside the bin, TeleSense believes, shouldn’t cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Zafar says their technology will be between $1,000 to $2,000. There will also be a subscription fee of $25 per storage unit for the data analytics.

The technology, he adds, has already saved its Australian customers $3 million worth of grain from loss due to spoilage.

GrainSafe will be available for large grain elevators and co-ops this year. In 2020, when the product is cost-optimized, the start-up will focus on midsize to large farming operations. As the sensor price continues to drop, TeleSense anticipates it will go after the remaining ag segment in 2021.

“We are looking at grain in a much more advanced way,” says Zafar. “With our data-driven approach, we want to redefine the expectations for how grain is stored, handled, and traded.”

GSI Grainviz

To bring advanced insight into the moisture content of each bushel of grain in a steel storage bin, GSI has partnered with 151 Research. 

“For years, we have been equating temperature to quality when what we are really trying to manage is moisture,” says Price. 

Originally developed at the University of Manitoba to detect cancer in breast tissue, 151 Research scaled its electromagnetic imaging technology to predict what is happening inside a grain bin. 

GSI GrainViz (grainviz.com), which is similar to an MRI scan but at a much lower frequency, uses 24 radio antennae attached to 12 cables that are placed on the inside of the bin wall. Each antenna alternates between a transmitter (that broadcasts radio signals through the grain) and a receiver (that listens to those signals). 

Using sophisticated software that goes through Amazon’s cloud computing service, the collected data is then translated into a three-dimensional moisture map. Depending on the size of the bin, the technology can locate an issue in pockets of grain that range in size from a softball to a beach ball. It can also detect human, insect, or rodent activity.

When a potential problem is identified, customizable notifications are sent via email, text message, or phone call. 

Knowing the preconditions that could lead to spoilage, explains Paul Card, CEO of 151 Research, lets you take action earlier rather than waiting for the temperature to indicate when spoilage is occurring. 

“For example, if you are loading a bin in the fall, GrainViz will tell you – within an hour or two – to go back to bin No. 3 and turn those 1,000 bushels to avoid a problem in the spring,” he says.

The system’s customer portal lets you remotely monitor and manage grain conditions, which means there’s no need for you to enter the bin to check grain conditions. You can also control fans and receive detailed inventory reporting with any web-enabled device. 

Designed to give precise inventory measurements, GrainViz will manage fan and heater operation based on user-programmed moisture objectives and variables such as ambient temperature, humidity, plenum static pressure, and existing moisture content.   

Price varies greatly depending on whether you want temperature cables so you can overlay those readings on the moisture image. GSI expects the imaging product alone to be a fixed cost regardless of bin size. Therefore, imaging will be least costly on larger bins and much cheaper than a cable system on those structures. 

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