by Sally Colby

What if an assortment of parts and a heavy-duty air compressor could prevent the tragic deaths that occur as a result of farmers entering grain bins? Would farmers be willing to assemble some simple parts and tools, many of which are already on the farm, and be aware of where to obtain a heavy-duty compressor?

Guy Mills, a fifth-generation Nebraska farmer, hopes fellow farmers will take the time to put together a simple device he said can save lives. It’s a unique solution to a tragic problem that happens far too often on farms across the U.S. every year.

“OSHA was looking at all the accidents in the agriculture industry,” said Mills. “They noticed all accidents were in steady decline except for grain bin entrapments. People were dying in grain bins.” There are many more grain bin entrapments and close calls than are reported because some accidents involve entrapment up to the waist and result in a fairly easy and safe rescue. But a farmer in Mills’s area was recently killed in a grain bin accident, making Mills even more determined to spread the word about his solution.

“In the spring of 2019 we had a horrible blizzard, and there was about five feet of snow in the bin,” Mills said of the events that led to what he devised. “We had a flood right after that and the bin plugged up. We rigged up this thing and it worked great.”

The materials required: 3/4” pipe the length of the radius of the bin; two 3/4” elbows; 3/4” pipe stem the length of the auger diameter; vise grips; claw hooks (clamps); hose; a shorter 3/4” pipe with the end smashed shut with a 3/8” hole in the side; a valve; and 250 cfm/minute air compressor. While many farms probably don’t have that compressor on the farm, Mills said it’s not hard to find one to rent. He said there are no substitutes for the claw hooks because they connect to the compressor. The main hazard in performing a grain bin cleanout with the device is the sandblast effect from the force of the corn exiting the bin. Not all grain bins are the same, so Mills suggested checking specifications with the bin manufacturer to be sure the structure can handle the pressure of a 250 cfm compressor.

The procedure for removing clumped grain begins with turning off power and removing the motor and the auger. Use vise grips to mark the stem position, insert the 3/4” pipe with one of the elbows and a stem. Turn on the compressor and blow out the plug by rotating it back and forth in the sump. Remove the pipe, shut the trap, remove the stem from the elbow and insert the second elbow to form a 180º angle. Insert the pipe with elbows, blowing out grain as you move it. Open the trap and listen for grain falling into the sump. Replace the auger and motor and repeat the process if another clump or pillar is discovered.

“If the middle sump is plugged, you just have to measure the radius of the bin to know how long your pipe has to be,” said Mills. “Put the elbow on, put the stem on. I use the vise grips on the pipe to know the position on the stem. Blow it out, close up the sump, pull it back out and stick another elbow in. You push all the pipe all the way to the middle and it blows all the corn that’s in there. Then all you have to do is open the sump and if corn falls into it, you know you’ve gotten the plug out.”

It takes about 10 minutes to assemble the parts, and since it doesn’t involve anyone entering the grain bin, the recommended safety equipment for entering a grain bin (a harness and oxygen gauge) aren’t needed. “It’s simple, it works and hopefully it’s going to save some lives,” said Mills. “Every farmer who has corn has spoilage, this will get the plug out.”

The University of Illinois received grant from USDA to further study the device Mills rigged up to clean out his bin. One aspect they’ll examine is compressor size – does the job require a 250 cfm compressor, or could a farmer use a compressor with lower cfm? In addition to corn, the study will also evaluate cleanout of beans, wheat and rice. The device will be tested on various bin sizes and augers, and bin manufacturers will also provide input.

Mills said the potential for entrapment actually begins with wet or inconsistent growing conditions, poor handling of the harvested crop, improper combine adjustments or old, leaky bins, all of which can result in grain clumping against the sides of the bin or forming a crust on the top. When the grain flow slows or stops, the farmer enters the bin to knock the crusted areas down. In addition to avoiding grain bin accidents, Mills said it’s to farmers’ advantage to ensure corn or other commodities are stored properly to obtain the highest prices with minimal loss, especially for ethanol, export and feed grade corn markets.

“If you have a low sunlight year before and the starch is poor, you’ll have more cracking,” Mills said. “More cracked corn means more spoilage, and more spoilage will result in more grain bin entrapments the following year.” Fungicides that make starch harder can potentially change the characteristics of stored grain. Paying attention to combine adjustments to minimize corn cracking during harvest can make a difference in corn quality and less spoilage.

“The goal of farmers has been to take a proactive approach to avoid OSHA visits on the farm,” said Mills, who would like to see the research include the quality of corn and other stored grains. “Let’s look at keeping corn good on the farm. We’ve seen corn prices go up $1 since harvest, so let’s teach farmers how to keep corn in the bin and capture more of the price for more profitability.”

Mills said all farmers want to do things cheaply, and his device fits the bill. “This is so incredibly simple, about as cheap as you’re going to get and it works,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want any credit for what he devised. “I’ve gotten other farmers to try it and they like it. It’s just amazing to be able to get the corn out of the bin without the farmer or someone else having to go into the bin.”