The stage is set for wet grain this fall. Cool early-season growing conditions in many areas of the Midwest retarded development of corn plants or necessitated replants. The later planting dates also created varying maturities in the fields. Those conditions mean more grain from the Corn Belt will need to be dried.

Producers marketing grain directly to an ethanol plant may have additional challenges with higher-moisture corn. “If producers have corn at 19 to 20% moisture in the field, they may have to dry it down,” explains Charles Hurburgh, professor of agricultural engineering at Iowa State University. “Any producer that has contracts they fill immediately will have to ensure they have grain-drying capacity lined up in case it is needed.”

Tempered with the possible need for grain drying is the improvement in corn genetics. Burl Shuler, vice president of sales and administration for GSI, says, “The corn genetics are definitely better, and the corn seems to do a better job of drying in the field than it did 10 years ago. But as late as this crop has gone in, harvest may be delayed, and producers will be in a big hurry to get corn out of the field. There will be a need for drying and conditioning of all types that we haven't seen in three or four years.”

This additional drying will come at significant cost. “To drop corn one point of moisture used to cost 2.5 cents to 2.75 cents per bushel,” Hurburgh says. “I would expect that number to at least double, simply reflecting the increase in natural gas prices.”

On average, about 1 gal. of propane will dry 11 bu. of corn from 24% moisture to 18% moisture. The annual U.S. propane industrial price averaged $0.65/gal. in 1994, eclipsed $1.07/gal. in 2001 and averaged nearly $1.84/gal. in 2007.

“The value of the corn crop is more, but the price to remove a point of moisture has increased as well,” Hurburgh says. “Producers may be in for a bit of a shock when they see exactly how much it will cost to dry grain.”

More storage = more drying

Industry sources say that demand for higher-capacity grain-drying equipment is on the rise, partly because more storage space is being built on-farm.

“Our 40 years of experience has shown us that, when storage sells, a year or two later there's an increased interest in grain-drying systems,” says Jim Ratliff, grain dryer sales manager for Shivvers. “Producers with on-farm storage have more control over their grain, and they realize that they need to ensure that it is in good condition when they put it in the bins.”

“Grain storage and grain-drying demand was on an uptick even before the large ethanol-demand increase,” says Randy Holthaus, grains systems marketing manager for Growmark. “The trend is toward bigger equipment and faster unloading. They don't want to keep combines running. In fact, producers are willing to spend the money if it will speed up the grain-handling process.”

Greater efficiency

Dryer manufacturers say that, although the amount of Btus required to remove moisture from grain remains constant, newer grain-drying technologies are more efficient and could be a good long-term investment, especially in light of current energy costs.

GSI has introduced its new X-Stream series driers, which feature an exclusive mixing chamber to blend heated drying air for even drying and to eliminate front-to-back moisture variation and heat loss, resulting in higher-efficiency drying.

“And next spring, we will be introducing a smaller tower dryer to meet the demands of our customers,” GSI's Shuler says. “It is also tremendously more efficient at drying grain, which will catch the eye of producers.”

500,000-bu. storage

One producer who recognized the efficiency of new grain-drying systems is Richard O'Brien of Clinton, IL. Last year, he invested in a 500,000-bu. storage system, complete with two storage tanks, hopper storage and a drying tower that can handle 1,875 bu./hr. “We chose the tower because the bins are too big to move air, big bins are more cost effective to build than a bunch of small bins, and the tower dryer is much more efficient than a stacked dryer,” O'Brien says.

Although the tower dryer was more expensive, “it's about 15% more fuel-efficient than regular stacked dryers,” he states. “The tower dryer will pay for itself in the long run.”

That's because, even in a dry year, O'Brien starts harvesting corn at about 25% moisture and dries it down to 16.5%. He says that the delayed planting this year probably means harvest won't start in full until the third week in September. “By then, air temperatures will be cooler, which means we'll need to heat up the dryer more,” he says. “Then a more efficient dryer will really pay dividends.”

Back to basics

Industry experts recommend that, before your crop is in, you should do a maintenance check of your dryer. Examine cleaning screens, aeration floors and fan blades. Check the burner for proper operation.

Then avoid overdrying the grain. And ensure the grain is clean. Wetter grains have more fines, and that's something that will increase drying time.

A more efficient system means less drying cost.