Make safety your first priority when emptying grain bins

Following the wet and late harvest of 2019, several Midwest states are on the edge of a dangerous cliff when it comes to emptying their grain bins. Conditions are aligning to create the potential for tragic accidents and grain suffocation deaths to occur when grain bins start to be emptied.

It is common knowledge that quality harvested grain placed in storage, coupled with a best management practice of caring for grain, yields quality grain leaving storage for market. Inversely, either poor quality grain being placed in storage or poor management practices for caring for grain leads to spoiled grain leaving storage.

Getting spoiled grain out of storage always poses an increased safety risk for entrapment and suffocation to a farm operator and worker. There are years of documentation that illustrate the direct connection from spoiled grain leaving storage to a tragic grain entrapment and the resulting fatality.

“Grain’s tremendous force that holds victims in grain, and the speed that entrapment occurs are often misunderstood,” said Charles Schwab, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Schwab says it’s important to shift attention once the operator determines that unloading the grain is becoming difficult. The priority of “getting the grain out” should switch to “keeping everyone involved safe.”

However, there is still time and a strong likelihood of acceptable weather to alter the grain storage conditions, before leading to more problematic conditions that put people at risk of entrapment and loss of life.

Dirk Maier, professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State, said that evaluating CO2 concentrations can be effective in monitoring stored grain quality and early detection of grain spoilage. A hand-held CO2 sensor, available from several retailers, can be used at exhaust vents or access ports for measuring concentrations.

“CO2 concentrations around 450 to 600 parts per million are a safe range to continue storage, 600 to 1,500 parts per million indicates onset of mold or moisture infiltration, and 1,500 to 4,000 parts per million is a severe condition,” Maier said.

These measurements can assist farmers in identifying grain bins that need immediate attention.

Maier offers the management tip that when you locate a grain bin with a CO2 concentration range above 600 parts per million and increasing from week to week, use the proper weather conditions and aeration fans to bring the condition back into acceptable range.