Marathon runners will tell you that sooner or later, they all hit “the wall.” It’s a performance barrier that is a combination of psychological and physical fatigue. The best runners work through it.
For 21 years, Ben Riensche has been steadily jogging in a farm-expansion marathon. His grain-farming operation, centered in Jesup, Iowa, has grown from 1,800 acres to more than 11,000. The growth pace has been purposeful, and progress seemed almost inevitable. But recently, the race had gotten harder, and mile markers seemed farther apart. Riensche hadn’t hit a psychological wall. Rather, his 150,000-bushel bin setup had become a physical limiting factor; it couldn’t keep up with three combines and work crews running at full speed.
“It came to a point that the grain harvest was the bottleneck that prevented us from taking the next step [to speed and efficiency],” Riensche says.
The way around his “wall” eventually became obvious: to build a whole new facility. Last year, Riensche broke ground on a 900,000-bushel system. It had taken months of research and the usual features/cost compromises before deciding on a layout. In the end, he decided that his new grain-bin facility would be commercial-sized and loaded with extra touches that might increase the initial cost but would also set up his farm for the near and foreseeable future.
The project was expensive (more than $4 per bushel). But Riensche’s previous career was in banking, and before green-lighting construction, he did extensive financial analysis. Even with low commodity prices, he figures the system will pay for itself in only a few years. In the meantime, Riensche’s farm can pick up the pace again at harvest.
In preparation for designing the grain system, “I looked at dozens of existing facilities,” Riensche says. Several things became clear about those that could handle an operation of his size:
— It’s better to build big. “I have never met a farmer who said, ‘I wish I’d built a smaller grain system,’ ” Riensche says.
— Speed counts. Efficiency depends on quickly dumping a grain truck’s load and moving it within the system.
— Plan ahead. Most facilities he visited had been modified, and the most common modification was the addition of a third leg to receive, dry and store simultaneously.
— Appearance is important. “Farms are judged by how they look,” Riensche says.
From the outset, Riensche knew he wanted to build big; that was the whole point. But how big? As he got into planning, he discovered that building a commercial-sized system could bring him volume discounts from venders. “Extra capacity can be cheap,” he says. For instance, he looked at a 500,000-bushel bin and found that cost to be about $2 per bushel. If he jumped to 700,000, the extra 200,000 would only cost $1 per bushel. He jumped to 700,000.
His new system also has a 150,000-bushel stiffened bin with a full aeration floor; a 120,000-bushel bin for wet storage; a blending and utility hopper with 20,000-bushel capacity; and a dryer that will move 4,700 bushels per hour and has 30,000-gallon propane storage.
QUICK TO UNLOAD
“A limiting factor [to harvest efficiency] is how fast you can jump out of a grain truck and unload,” Riensche says. With that in mind, he built a 1,500-bushel pit and conveyor system that can move grain as fast as it can come out of a truck.
The extra-large pit and receiving center also make future expansion easier, because new bins can be added in both directions and still pull from the same receiving center.
Riensche uses a commercial conveyor belt fabrication system to move grain from the pit and elsewhere at the site.. He chose conveyors over augers, because they can move grain quickly and with less damage. Also, they are more durable.
Riensche was determined to be able to distribute grain efficiently and to have enough capacity to handle future expansion. (He also does some storage and custom drying for landlords and other farmers.) His three 150-foot-tall legs accomplish that for him. The receiver leg can move 15,000 bushels per hour. A second dry leg can distribute dry grain among the bins. The third leg feeds wet corn into the dryer. For identity preservation, he can use the 20,000 hopper bin for wet corn and move it into the overhead load-out tank when dry.
There is no auxiliary conveyor to most of the bins because the legs are so tall. “It was a design goal to reduce the number of conveyors and moving parts,” Riensche says. Only the largest bin requires a horizontal conveyor at the top to connect it to the legs.
Atop the legs is a double swing set distributor that allows the system to send grain into one set of pipes for redirection to any bin. That eliminates a costly double-piping system.
A programmable logic controller might be Riensche’s favorite in a long list of extras. It has no hand switches; it’s all touch screen, he says. “If I want to take corn from the truck and put in the center bin, I just touch the screen.”
Other extras include a radar system to remotely monitor grain levels in bins. Unlike paddle or pressure switches, they can give real-time bin level readings. Also, most of this system’s motors have a “soft start” feature that draws lower amperage at start-up, allowing higher voltage and less expensive wire. And using a tower structure to support the legs rather than guy wires on the campus means freer access and fewer safety concerns.
The receiving house — which faces the road and is the first close-up glimpse the public gets of the new facility — has decorative copulas, a roofed entryway and signage with the farm logo.
The load building itself is bright and clean, insulated and lined with steel. It’s a place “that makes the worst job on the farm” more comfortable in rain, snow and wind, Riensche says.
The building that contains electric controls is also the scale house. Riensche plans to add a second floor as an office area.
Riensche didn’t just jump into this project with starry eyes and rosy glasses. His previous career as a banker and a mindset for numbers made him cautious. But, finally, “a lot of things came together so that the fundamentals were sound to build it,” he says.
His location in northeast Iowa is important. Ethanol plants recently have strengthened demand in the area, and animal agriculture provides a ready market for corn. End users are a short haul from the site. And, “they will pay me to hold corn until they need it,” Riensche says.
Over the years, farmland values in his area have appreciated for him and his neighbors, and his consistent investments in land have paid off. That means, “This project didn’t screw up my balance sheet,” Riensche says.
At the same time, government loan programs made money cheap and investment easier.
When he pulled the trigger on the project, Riensche saw at least two potential upsides.
First, his new grain-handling system will maximize the value of grain produced by the farm by keeping harvest timely and reducing field losses. Also, he can dry, store and blend grain quickly to realize “quick ship” premium bids in any weather. If the need ever arises to process more bushels, handling core capacity is large enough to accommodate expansion, and the layout is designed to simply add bins.
Second, “If circumstances change, I can sell.” With that in mind, he chose a site on a paved road a mile from his house. If he ever sells, his family’s home will not be affected. Also, by building on a stand-alone site to commercial standards, he increased the pool of potential buyers, be they other farmers or elevator companies.
Now that the decision to build is behind him, and his new bins shine against the sky, Riensche has no buyer’s remorse. In fact, he says, “I wonder, what was I thinking that I didn’t build this before?”