Though they may look like snowdrifts that somehow survived into the summer, the humongous white plastic bags that are appear on the southwest North Dakota landscape during harvest are full of very valuable commodities.
The 300- to 500-foot grain storage devices, which can hold anywhere from 12,000 to 34,000 bushels of wheat, are being used more than ever by area farmers who want cheaper and easier methods of storing their product once it’s off the field.
“There’s no way in the world I could farm that many acres without doing the bagging,” said Craig Fisher, who farms around 17,000 acres near Richardton and sells grain bagging machines through his business, Antelope Farm Supply.
Fisher started using grain bags in 2010 and jokes that a couple years later he was roped into selling them for Loftness, a Hector, Minn.-based company that builds the grain bagging machines.
Fisher said his sales doubled from 2014 to 2015 and have gone up another 25 percent this year.
He said many farmers are now using the bags in fields they’re harvesting, which cut down on truck transport.
“There’s always that lull when farmers quit hauling and they’ve got to keep grinding,” Fisher said. “Those bags really give you that flexibility, if you can manage the labor to do it.”
Keith Witte, who farms throughout central Hettinger County, has been using grain bags instead of adding extra bin space for the past three years. The Regent farmer said he has been impressed with the bags’ durability and the amount of money he has saved.
He has filled eight 12,000-bushel bags so far this summer and plans to fill three to four more.
“It does save me more, short-term,” Witte said. “Bins are long term and would be wonderful to have. But at the price, it’s not as feasible as this.”
Fisher said he sells three different bags, a 12-by-500-foot bag that holds 34,000 bushels of grain, a 10-by-500-footer that holds 22,000 bushels, and a 10-by-300-footer that hold 13,000 bushels. The smallest bag is the most common, he said.
Ben Hetzel, manager of Southwest Grain in Lemmon, S.D., said his elevator has been using the bags the past four years to help manage the volume of grain it takes in during harvest.
Because Lemmon is not on a major rail line and only has around 1 million bushels of storage capacity in bins, it was often faced with turning producers away during harvest after its bins filled up.
Since the elevator started using grain bags, however, Hetzel said it has been able to add about another 1 million bushels in storage capacity through their use of the 500-foot bags.
“Not having a lot of big space to hold grain for a few months, we’ve relied heavily on that to get us through harvest,” he said.
This year, the elevator has put around 700,000 bushels of grain in bags, and has used them as transitional storage beginning with winter wheat in early harvest. Hetzel said once bin storage space is cleared, they transfer the grain out of the bags. Once that happens, more grain will come in. That product is then put in bags and the process starts over.
“In order to do what we’ve done, we’d have really needed about a million bushels of space (in bins),” he said. “Even if you go cheap, that’s a $3 million-plus project. We might have total right now of 10 percent of that invested in this, and over 50 percent of that is something you can recoup your investment out of it.”
Hetzel said while using the bags has been profitable for his cooperative, the tool has been divisive among producers.
“The guys who hate them had a bad experience and won’t go there again,” he said.
Fisher and Hetzel said some farmers were scared off the bags because they aren’t impervious to large hail. Thunderstorms that ripped through the Mott and Regent area this summer brought large jagged hail and poked hundreds of holes in grain bags owned by farmer Alan Honeyman.
Hetzel said that also happened in Lemmon and “created a little nightmare,” though the bags still served their purpose.
Witte said the only issues he has had is the bags can attract wildlife if holes are poked in them.
“You have to do a great job of cleaning up any spills or anything around the bag. Don’t let the wildlife find it as a food source, or you’re out of luck. They’ll eat it,” he said with a laugh. “If a pheasant starts to poke on it, they’ll come back.”
Fisher said the bags are not supposed to be a long-term storage solution like grain bins. He suggests keeping grain in the bags for, at most, two years.
“We’ve had luck with them, but we empty them out in a timely fashion,” he said.