Propane pain: Tight supplies delay grain drying

The latest headache came in the form of logistics hang-ups that have created a shortage of propane for farmers like Beck, as well as for commercial grain elevators.

“We sure didn’t need this,” Beck said.

As of Nov. 15, Beck had over 300 acres of corn yet to combine. He also was running his grain dryer to dry corn — as long as his supply of propane would allow.

“I got half a load yesterday, about 3,500 gallons. We were combining this morning. I’ve got about 30% left in the tank and I’ll dry until I run out and then I’ll quit until they can bring me some,” Beck said.

The problem of not having enough propane to dry the wet grain coming out of fields is being felt across the entire Midwest.

“This year is going to fight us all the way to the very end,” said Mark Heil, general manager of Prairie Central Co-op in Chenoa, Illinois.

Two of Prairie Central’s nine elevators use propane to fuel their grain-drying systems. Heil said that while one of those elevators is close to being finished with harvest, the other is only around half done.

“That has created a challenge because we have not received a supply of propane here for a few days,” Heil said.

Heil said that has created a situation where operations hinge on how much propane is left.

“We are going hour by hour, minute by minute, day by day here, just trying to work our way through it,” he said.

The inability to get propane has inevitably impacted the farmers who are moving grain to elevators for drying and storage.

“We’ve had to reduce our hours of receiving. We have other elevators and we have had to ask our customers if they can deliver their grain to those locations, which is a little further transportation for them,” Heil said.

The problem is not on the end of the local suppliers, and Beck and Heil noted that suppliers are feeling the pain along with their customers.

“They were teaspooning me along, so I could keep running, not full days, but most of the day. They were doing their darndest to keep everybody moving, thinking there would be a break. They are trying their best,” said Beck of his propane supplier.

Heil agreed that local propane suppliers are feeling the pain, as well due to tight supplies.

“Our supplier is saying they are doing the best they can, and we know they are. They are professionals in this thing, and it just caught everybody off guard. They are trying to get it and get it to customers as soon as they can. They try to keep us updated, and they seem as frustrated with this situation as we are. Our vendor has done a wonderful job for decades, and this is the first time we’ve seen this situation,” Heil said.

The problem is not that there is not enough propane. U.S. propane supplies are plentiful, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The U.S. EIA report ending Nov. 14 showed U.S. propane supplies at 97.653 million barrels, down just 2.5 million barrels from the week prior and up 13.893 million barrels from the same time a year ago.

Part of the issue is that a late, wet spring planting throughout the Midwest meant a later harvest of higher moisture grain — and that harvest has occurred almost at the same time throughout the Midwest, prompting a widespread demand for propane.

“Normally, at harvest, we have a gradual move from the south up to the north to dry grain, so it all works together. Everybody finishes at a different time. This year, because it was so wet and the crops were planted late, everybody is harvesting at the same time in the upper Midwest,” said Deb Grooms, CEO of the Iowa Propane Association.

The propane that is used in the Midwest comes from pipeline terminals in Conway, Kansas, and Bushton, Kansas.

“The infrastructure is the pipeline, and there’s only so much that come up the pipeline. One of those pipelines also has isobutane on it, so it’s not a dedicated propane line,” Grooms said.

Demand also has grown as the bushels produced have increased.

“One big thing is that the infrastructure has not kept up with the farm equipment, bigger combines and bigger capacity grain dryers are new additions, but the pipeline hasn’t been updated,” Grooms said.

On Nov. 1, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued a regional emergency waiver pertaining to Hours of Service regulations for Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin to allow for the transportation of propane in those states.

“That means we can take trucks to go further out to bring propane back. We have a lot of drivers who are going to Conway, Kansas, to get product because there’s plenty of propane there,” Grooms said.

Jeannine Otto can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 211, or jotto@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Otto.

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