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Better business decisions to maximise harvest profits

Research Team: Prof Ryan Loxton, Dr Elham Mardaneh
CIC specialist: Shiv Meka

 

Every year, over 4,000 grain growers in Western Australia harvest their wheat, barley, oats, canola and lupins between November and January.  The vast majority of their crops are transported direct from the field to port via a fixed distribution network operated by a grain growers’ cooperative.

On-farm storage facilities such as silos and bunkers are widely used in countries such as the USA and Canada but are uncommon in Western Australia, despite the many potential benefits:

  • If grain moisture limits for on-farm storage are higher than for receival sites, harvesting can start earlier and finish later each day when moisture levels are higher.
  • Storage with moisture management can be used to adjust the grain moisture content to the maximum allowable, maximising the crop weight (tonnage) without affecting its grade (based on dry composition) before sale.
  • Harvesting is not restricted by receival site opening times, or delivery congestion at those sites during peak harvest periods.
  • Any flexibility that shortens the duration of the harvest lowers both yield losses from crops standing in the field past maturity, and the risk of quality losses due to unfavourable weather events.
  • Trucking costs can be reduced by delivering grain outside of the peak harvest period.
  • Storage to segregate different grades of grain can provide blending opportunities to ‘uplift’ some into a higher grade and price bracket.
  • Storing grain in small lots on-farm enables growers to cater for niche markets with unique requirements, and provides maximum product traceability for ‘green’, ‘GM free’ or provenance-based marketing.

However permanent farm silos are significant capital investments, and their cost needs to be factored into farm management over many years, and weighed against the benefits they provide through increased harvesting flexibility.

Global Grain Handling Solutions is developing a low cost and temporary alternative for on-farm grain storage: sealable containers that can be hired and moved every season.  The modular system removes the large up-front capital investment required for silos, but provides the flexibility of on-farm storage, for at least a portion of a crop.  This innovation could alter the economics of harvesting for farmers, but choosing the right combination of harvest and distribution pathways to adopt becomes a very complex problem with significant impacts on profit.

With support from the Federal Government through the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s Innovation Connections program, Global Grain Handling Solutions commissioned research to develop a rigorous cost/benefit analytical model of on-farm storage facilities.

CIC mathematical modellers Professor Ryan Loxton and Dr Elham Mardaneh from Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering, Computing and Mathematical Sciences captured the characteristics of a harvest season and the activities associated with it into a rigorous mathematical model.  Over 60 inputs can be set to match a specific farm’s operations, from the number of hectares under each different crop to the amount and cost of storage available, number of harvesters and trucks, harvesting rates, truck speeds, distances to receival sites with their opening times and requirements, right through to current market prices.  Other variables can be adjusted to consider moisture limits, blending ratios, yield and quality reductions to the standing crop over time, transportation costs and the percentage of harvest split between different distribution pathways and markets.

Programming expertise provided by CIC specialist Shiv Meka was then crucial in converting the complex mathematical algorithm into a robust modelling tool for farmers.  After coding and refining the model, Meka developed a user-friendly interface for it using Excel, a software package regularly used by the farming community.

Given a set of operating parameters, the model can calculate the expected costs and profits arising from particular harvest choices and conditions.  Grain growers can now use this decision support tool to run ‘what if’ scenarios, evaluate the benefit of using on-farm storage as a flexible adjunct to the fixed distribution network, and help plan their harvest logistics.

As a result of this CIC collaboration, farmers can now use familiar spreadsheet software to access a rigorous, evidence-based mathematical model to explore their harvest options and identify the most profitable scenarios for their specific farm.