In a previous post, I presented one of the world’s imaginary selfies as a painted desert. It was, of course, an intentional trick, since there aren’t any painted deserts in Kansas. Using the phrase as a metaphor to describe what I’d found simply was an way to temporarily disguise a wonderful and wholly unexpected reality, giving readers a chance to make their own guess about its identity.
If I’d posted a different photo, and called it a Kansas dune, identification would have been easier. On the other hand, even when I started seeing these dunes — or mountains, as some call them — in the south-central part of the state, I had no idea what I was seeing. Piles of red laterite soil came to mind, but there’s little laterite in Kansas, and no evidence of it on the gravel roads threaded through the state. Road construction clearly wasn’t the answer, but I couldn’t come up with an alternative.
Even though I’d noticed the piles near elevators, my mind refused to the grasp the obvious answer. There was only one solution. I stopped at the next grain elevator, made my way around the building, and found the office that overlooked the large scales where grain-filled trucks pulled in to be weighed. Explaining to the young women working there that I was traveling, and curious, I asked my question: “What are those huge piles sitting outside your building?”
Finally, one stopped laughing long enough to gasp out an answer. “Milo!” she said. “Grain sorghum. The harvest this year was unbelievable. The elevators are full, so we’re having to put it on the ground.”
I understood her answer, but the enormity of what I’d seen still was hard to grasp. I asked another question. “How much grain is in one of those piles?”
“Well,” she said, “we’ve got about 700,000 bushels in the milo pile, and a million bushels of corn out there.” While I tried to process that, she added that they expected to reach a million bushels of milo before the harvest was finished. “Once we get a million bushels, we might have to start a second pile. There really is a lot of grain coming in.”
That much seemed obvious, even to me, and a little digging into the statistics made clear that “a lot of grain” barely does justice to this year’s harvest. The 2016 corn total in Kansas is projected to be 713 million bushels: up 23 percent from last year’s production. Grain sorghum (or milo), although forecast to be down 8 percent from last year, still is forecast to provide a record yield of 89 bushels per acre: a total of 258 million bushels,
In these days of remarkable crop yields, it’s hard to imagine that most early Kansas elevators — built of wood and spaced every few miles along the railroad tracks — had storage capacities limited to between 5,000 and 15,000 bushels of grain. After 1900, concrete silos became more common. Not only were they less susceptible to fire, they also were larger, holding up to 100,000 bushels. Today’s large storage elevators have capacities ranging from 500,000 to more than 1,500,00 bushels, but the amount of grain being harvested still has outstripped the capacity of elevators to hold it.
Shipping might seem an obvious answer, but even when large terminals in places like Kansas City have space, local elevators can’t ship corn, beans, and milo until they’ve been sold, and the market is sluggish. Businesses that regularly purchase grain, like flour mills, often have limited storage space at their facilities. Even after substantial purchases, a portion of the grain may have to stay at local elevators until needed. That’s when ground storage provides a temporary, if less than ideal solution.
Ground-stored grain always incurs loss due to spoilage. If it can be moved quickly, the loss can be as minimal as one percent. If it remains on the ground for a longer period of time, losses of two to five percent are common, and rain can raise spoilage rates even higher. Covering the grain does help, and the practice has led to many piles around the state looking like low-profile circus tents: their white, protective tarps glistening in the sun.
One of the young women at the elevator suggested that the tarped piles might be last year’s crop, and comments made by Dirk Maier of Kansas State University support that conclusion:
It’s when grain is stored into the following spring and summer that tarp covers are used and provisions need to be made for aeration. Sufficiently dry corn (15% moisture or less) stored in piles only during cooler fall and winter weather does not usually need to be covered and aerated.
Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University Extension Service engineer, pointed out in a journal I never imagined I’d read — the Corn and Soybean Digest — that a variety of factors influence the rate of loss in grain piles, including site preparation, storage design, quality of aeration, and weather. The complexity of grain handling is hinted at in some of his suggestions:
* Select a site that has roughly 130′ of turnaround space for trucks dropping off grain
* Run piles north and south to allow the sun to dry the sloping sides
* Build a retaining wall to increase storage capacity
* Remove grain from the center of the pile, to prevent uneven pressure on the retaining wall
* Install an aeration system to cool the grain so its temperature is uniform and equal to the average outdoor temperature in order to minimize mold growth, moisture movement, and insect damage
The sheer size of the grain piles isn’t meant merely to impress tourists. Maximizing the pile size reduces the ratio of surface grain to total grain volume: minimizing the possibility of weather damage. And the beautiful, dune-like slopes of the piles are equally intentional. A nice, uniform pile provides what is called “maximum grain surface slope,” a way to avoid hills, valleys, folds, and crevices that collect water.
There’s even a reason that the augers used to add grain to the pile are extended to the very top of the existing grain heap.** Keeping the drop distance from the spout of the auger to the pile at a minimum helps to achieve maximum slope. The maximum angle of repose and pile height occurs when grain rolls down the side of the pile.
In the presence of so much grain, one notable absence puzzled me. There weren’t many birds around, and in some places I saw none. One person suggested they come and they go, and I’d seen the grain piles when the birds were otherwise occupied. Another suggestion seemed more likely: that the birds prefer the fields, where they can find cover as well as food.
And, with a stiff Kansas wind rising every afternoon, I couldn’t help wondering why the grain didn’t blow away. Several reasons were offered: wind flowing up and over a pile rather than through it; the formation of a light crust because of cycles of wetting and drying; and the weight of the grain itself. On the other hand, chaff will blow freely, and its movement is responsible for some of the wonderful patterns found on the surface of the piles.
If you look closely at the enlargement of this photo, you can see the chaff flying in the air.
Still, as interesting as ground-stored grain may be from a scientific perspective, and as important as it is economically, it’s the beauty I found compelling. Every pile is differently colored and differently patterned: a gallery of agricultural abstraction that I could — and did — enjoy for hours.
While not as visually complex as milo, Kansas corn piles more closely resemble sand dunes. Seen again a cerulean sky, their beauty is undeniable.
This million bushel pile was constructed a thousand bushels at a time. Fully loaded, a semi carries 50,000 pounds of grain; at 50 pounds per bushel, the math’s not hard. Milo weighs 50-56 pounds per bushel, so a truck hauling milo may carry fewer bushels, but that’s still a lot of coming and going, filling and emptying. Mechanization helps, but the work is just as intense: particularly when weather threatens, or equipment malfunctions cause delays.
Still, with time and effort, all is safely gathered in, and the sense of satisfaction is palpable.
As I crossed the state of Kansas, miles of stubble-filled corn and milo fields stretched to the horizon: reminders of the effort required to build those piles of grain. In the meantime, a phalanx of combines working the soybean fields sent yet another river of grain into waiting trucks, and a dusty haze into the air. With soybean production also forecast to exceed the 2015 harvest by a record 192 million bushels, there still was work to be done.
The lowly soybean provides a different sort of beauty while in the field: golden and glowing in the sunlight that warms and dries it for harvest. But it isn’t the only beauty to be found in those fields.
In Osage County, Jeffrey Casten stood next to his combine, gazing across the road at still-uncut fields and grinning. “I’ve never seen a harvest like this,” he said. “The yields are terrific.” When I asked if that wouldn’t mean lower prices, he agreed, then added, “But we still bring in the crop. That’s what we do.”
Outside Cottonwood Falls, a single combine added its dust to the pall draped across the land. North of Garden City, lines of semis waited for their loads, while south of Alma and east of Sublette, in field after field, the lights of late-working farmers shone into the night.
The crops they brought in are beautiful, indeed: but so are they. In this season of gratitude, we’d do well to support their efforts, and give thanks for their results.