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Got propane?

By Staff | Nov 6, 2019



Cooperatives and producers are finding it hard to keep an ample supply of propane on hand in order to dry corn this fall – just another crippling affect to an already challenging season.

For MaxYield Cooperative, they are just one of several cooperatives that are on the daily search for loads of propane to serve their grain dryers and their customers.

“Just know we are doing everything we can. We are constantly, I feel like, calling and trying to do everything,” said Chad Besch, energy team leader for MaxYield Cooperative. “We feel terrible. This happened in 2009 and that is the last time it has been this bad. It is the worse feeling knowing that you can’t get your client what they need to get their job done.”

Although the main demand for propane use right now is for grain dryers there’s others that are in need of the gas too.

“We understand that a house, a livestock building they got to have it. They just have to have LP, so we keep a little bit in every tank. We can’t afford to be completely out all across the company. We know that those places got to have it.”

Is there truly a propane shortage?

Besch said he wouldn’t go as far as calling the situation a shortage, but possibly more of a distribution issue.

“In Iowa, and really the majority of the Midwest, there are two big pipelines that service a good chunk of the area,” he said. “The pipeline system is how propane is distributed throughout the Midwest.”

In a typical year, Besch said the temperature is 20 degrees warmer and areas such as Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska are further along with their harvest than us.

“Their harvest is usually wrapping up and there is more propane available then because maybe it’s not being shipped to Illinois so it can be shipped to Iowa,” he said.

Besch said there is also only so much propane that can be pumped through the pipelines at a time.

“The terminals are shipping just as much as they always do,” he said. “It’s just the demand is so strong and it hit so fast.”

In north central Iowa, companies are supplied propane from four terminals located in Sanborn, Ogden, Clear Lake and Des Moines.

Just last week alone, Besch said both Clear Lake and Des Moines, which are on what is named the Oneok Pipeline, had been experiencing outages, which didn’t help the distribution issue from those terminals whatsoever.

Ogden and Sanborn are on the MidAmerican Pipeline. The outages on the Oneok Pipeline only further congested those terminals in Sanborn and Ogden.

“When those terminals run out, then all of the trucks go to another terminal, then that terminal backs up even more,” he said.

Besch said last Friday, for example, MaxYield had a truck arrive in Sanborn at 6 a.m. and that truck wasn’t expected to get loaded, if at all, until 10 p.m.

“In a perfect world, you drive in, fill up the product and it takes 30 minutes to fill the truck and drive out,” he said. “That was the case in Ogden. There were 15 to 16 hour waits.”

Every week, Besch said the Department of Energy puts out a report of supplies of propane, gas, diesel, etc.

According to the report, he said our overall supply of propane in the Midwest is within range.

“There’s no alarming number by any means,” he said. “It’s obviously decreasing this time of year, but you don’t look at that and say ‘oh my gosh we are going to run out.’ It just can’t get where it needs to be fast enough.”

Another factor to consider is the size of on-farm drying systems these days.

“No one puts a drying system on the farm and puts in a smaller dryer,” he said. “They’re either adding more dryers or putting in bigger dryers and that just increases that demand more and more.”

Equipment and yields are also growing.

“We have good yields, but that also means there is more corn to dry,” he said. “The thing about the pipeline system is it hasn’t changed in, I don’t know 50 years? And think about what the average yield has done and what the speed of harvest is. Even 20 years ago, who had a 12 row combine? Nobody. And now, there’s people with two, 12 row combines.”

Besch said to not be quick to judge this distribution issue as a ploy from the gas companies to drive up demand and cause a price hike.

“Some people will say ‘well they just do this to drive up demand.’ I personally don’t believe that,” he said. “The pipeline they are just the transportation people. They get paid per gallon of what goes out of that terminal. They don’t control the price. They don’t care if it’s $1 a gallon or $10 per a gallon. They just get paid so much per gallon by the people who are putting the product into the pipeline, so, in my opinion, I guess, I believe they want to ship as much fuel as they possibly can. They are not in the game, per-say.”

It could also be the result of a conflict in scheduling as well as speed of travel.

“At times, they may need to stop propane and ship butane or another kind of gas and this is scheduled way in advance. The stuff in the pipe travels at very, very low speed, so it’s not like they can take something down in Conway, Kansas and throw it in the pipe and it’s up here tomorrow. It takes days and weeks.”

Managing wet grain

Charles Hurburgh, professor, agricultural and biosystems engineering and professor in charge, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative at Iowa State University, said producers have a few options to help manage their wet corn if they are unable to obtain any propane to run their dryers.

Hurburgh said one option is to leave it in the field, which does involve some risk, however.

If a producer does choose to harvest corn and it is still in the upper teens, to lower 20s in moisture, Hurburgh said to “get it cold.”

“By no means do not let it sit in trucks and wagons. That’s not the thing to do,” he said. “Because, it is going to warm up. It’s going to heat. It’s not going to catch on fire, but even a little bit of heating – that indicates we are losing storage life and we don’t want to do that.”

Hurburgh said it is important to get the corn in a bin and get it aerated.

“Even if it’s your drying bin and you don’t have any gas, you probably still have a stirrator and a pretty good sized fan, so you ought to be able to get it cold,” he said.

Hurburgh believes that with careful aeration, getting the grain down into the 30s and taking advantage of the cold weather with lower dew points we are experiencing right now, will buy a producer enough time to hopefully allow this distribution issue with propane to resolve itself.

“I recognize doing that will use up some of the storage time, therefore we will have to pay attention in the spring because if we start getting hot spot issues, corn is not going to store very well,” he said. “I hate to say buy some time and hold it, but when you don’t have a choice to dry it, you go with the one choice you got.”

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