Technology changing how grain elevator operates

RURAL TAYLOR — When he first began working for Southwest Grain several years ago, Kent Candrian said there were days when he would walk about a mile or more at work — all of it in a 20-square-foot area.

Manning toggles and switches on a large wall switchboard, Candrian would make sure grain hauled to the Boyle Terminal between Gladstone and Taylor made it to the proper bins.

These days, Candrian still does that job. Instead, he sits in front of a bank of computer screens and does the majority of his work with the click of a mouse.

“I do everything in one spot,” said Candrian, a longtime driveway attendant for the CHS Inc. elevator. “Basically, it eliminates walking.”

Like many elevators, Southwest Grain has converted to automated systems that speed up its daily unloading of farmers’ trucks, its own loading of rail cars and also makes the lives of its employees easier.

“In the last four or five years, technology has advanced to the point where it just makes more sense because of the volume we do anymore,” Southwest Grain General Manager Delane Thom said. “It gets rid of some employee fatigue. It makes their job much easier and you can manage the whole system from one spot.”

The terminal accepts between 15-20 million bushels of wheat each year, Thom said, and can handle as many as 350 truckloads of grain each day.

Inside of the terminal, the computer system lets attendants like Candrian to easily determine how much grain a bin has in it, what type of grain is in the bin and allows them to quickly switch which bins is accepting the grain. Candrian can also weigh trucks as they come into the unloading pit.

All with a couple clicks of a mouse.

“I can watch it a lot better, keep my eye on more stuff, instead of going here and there,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier.”

A probing device operated by attendant Rich Solley inside the terminal’s office takes samples from grain trailers while they’re waiting in line and quickly sends the samples back to Solley, where he and other attendants test wheat for weight, protein, moisture, dockage and — unique to the past few months — falling numbers, which tests the quality of the wheat germ for use in flour.

Southwest Grain gives farmers electronic cards to scan at the probe area, which not only alerts the office whose truck it is, but also what commodity is being hauled. It allows attendants like Candrian to tell the truck driver — who isn’t always the farmer, but often a hired man, a customer harvester’s trucker or another family member — which pit to take the truck to for unloading. The truck driver is then alerted where to go by two electronic reader boards situated in the driveway.

“It’s way easier, especially once we get them in here,” said Kevin Lien, the terminal’s grain manager. “Kent used to have to get up here, go switch his bins with the toggle switches, turn his dials to pick the bins. Now … with a click of a mouse, he can basically run the whole terminal. He doesn’t even have to leave his station there.”

Truck drivers, in the past, would have to leave the unloading pit before dumping the grain and go into the elevator’s office to tell them what commodity was being hauled and for which farmer.

Now, they barely have to leave their trucks. Those with hydraulic hoppers on their trailers sometimes don’t leave their trucks thanks to a grain ticket printer located at the driver’s eye level in the pit area.

“If there’s a downside to technology, it’s that we don’t get to see our producers every time,” they come into the elevator, Thom said. “Technically, they don’t have to get out of their truck. That’s maybe the one downside of it. You just don’t have that interaction. But it’s all about getting through and every piece of that speeds it up quite a bit.”


Technology improvements everywhere

Lien, who has been in the elevator business for several years but joined the Boyle Terminal two years ago, said he often marvels at the changes that have taken place since he first started his career.

“You could tell this technology was out there,” he said. “You’ve just got to be able to implement it, get it into your facility and make it work.”

Now, if a worker has to load a railcar for shipment, it’s done from a centralized spot with two touch-screen monitors with an elevator layout similar to that of the main office’s computer.

Even the basic testing tools, such as protein, test weight and moisture counts, have advanced in recent years, he said. Where weighted scales were used and even grinding of wheat into germ may have been done in the past to perform those tests, the wheat is now simply dumped into testing machines and the determinations are made.

Radar technology has also made determining those bin space easier, he said.

“We can utilize our space a lot better and we can tell the bushels per foot,” Lien said.

However, the biggest change this year has been the addition of a falling numbers testing area, which determines spout damage in wheat.

This year, attendants at Southwest Grain have been testing each truckload for falling numbers with a chemistry set that looks like it should be in a lab rather than an elevator.

Seven grams of wheat are ground up, weighed and mixed with 25 ml of water in a test tube, which is shaken and then mixed by a machine that determines the wheat germ’s consistency.

Falling numbers was never a problem in southwest North Dakota before last fall, when an eight-day stretch of wet weather at the peak of harvest affected wheat germination, causing it to lose starchiness needed for use in bread making.

The falling numbers test has cut Southwest Grain’s daily truckloads in half. Now, 175 truckloads would be a good day, Lien said.

“It takes a lot more manpower in here to test every load of wheat,” he added.

But as much as things have changed, there are some areas of the elevator that haven’t made technological leaps in several decades.

The dockage tester — which separates pure grains from chaff, weeds and other impurities — is still the same style of mechanized shaking machine used more than 40 years ago.

“That won’t never change,” Candrian said with a laugh.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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