Grain elevators, they’re right there, jutting into the horizon, a silhouette on the skyline of many Kansas towns so familiar they’re almost taken for granted, yet they are vitally necessary to the annual farming cycle.
Elevator operator John Ottensmeier can help those curious to understand the inner workings of a classic grain elevator and the storage process crops go through once harvested and deposited there.
Trucks of varying sizes and holding capacities visit the elevator when they have a load ready, Ottensmeier said. Many people might be familiar with the initial steps of a grain deposit.
“Trucks go through dockage in which we measure the weight,” he said. “We also grade a grain sample using a probe that tests for a multiple number of things like moisture level and foreign material.”
Ottensmeier said the probe — which is a large, manually operated mechanical arm — gathers a sample of whatever crop is carried in the truck and uses the collected sample as a simulation for the entire load.
Each truckload is different, Ottensmeier said. In semi trucks, elevator workers take two samples — one at the front and the other at the back — because of the trucks’ size, to get a better idea of crop content.
“We take it all; wet, dry, light, heavy, and we make it all shippable, which usually means the grain is dry and heavy,” Ottensmeier said. “Dry grain stores better.”
Once a truck goes through dockage, drivers are instructed to pull forward to the depositing zone where elevator operators like Ottensmeier help them position their vehicles over a grain pit — a chamber covered by an iron grate — in which drivers dump their load.
Ottensmeier said grain pits are shaped like a cone at the bottom so the grain can flow freely down into a hole at its tip.
“They are gravity-fed,” he said. “It connects to a leg or a belt cup mechanism that is basically like a bunch of scoop shovels that carry the grain to the top of the elevator.”
He also operates a distributer arm that switches which bin the grain goes in. Ottensmeier and the rest of the workers use a dry erase board to diagram what silo and where within that silo specific crops are deposited.
“There are 10,000 bushels of grain right above your head,” he said.” “We have a total capacity of approximately 1,067,143 bushels here at Marion.”
Bushel weight varies from crop to crop. However, if each bushel averages about 60 pounds, that means the Marion elevator can hold approximately 64 million pounds of different crops, be they wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.
Elevators not only store various crops, they use a grain dryer to dry, cool, and maintain the collected product by process of aeration.
“We make the bad stuff good,” Ottensmeier said. “Through blending and drying, we help increase the quality of each bushel sent out.”
He said each crop has specific parameters for an optimum bushel. Sometimes they mix heavy and light loads or wet and dry loads to help get the weight per bushel where it needs to be.
“We’ll mix one wet, one dry, and one heavy load so it’s nice and dense and weighs up well,” Ottensmeier said.
He said different qualities or grades of grain are numbered — one, two, three, and feed — one being the best quality and feed being the worst.
Once mixed correctly, his job is to keep the crops in good condition until word is sent from Terminal Market Alliance in Moundridge, about where different loads are to be shipped.
A staff accountant at TMA said most of the crops grown in the Marion area stay in the area. Wheat is distributed to mills to make flour. Soybeans are often sent to crushing plants in Emporia or Wichita to extract the oil, while milo and corn crops are used for foodstuffs as well as the production of ethanol found in gasoline.
However, good portions of the crops also are sent out of state to various mills and terminals, including the coastlines and ports where crops are exported overseas.