Grain Handling In Russia

by Teresa Acklin
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Country slowly working to improve outdated grain storage and handling systems.

By Melissa Cordonier, editor

   Although Russia is among the world's largest grain producers, each year the country suffers significant quantity and quality losses related to grain storage, handling and distribution inefficiencies — inefficiencies reflecting a grain infrastructure that is 40 to 50 years behind North American systems, according to George Kornstad, program officer for the Citizens' Network for Foreign Affairs.

   At an educational session during the 1996 annual conference of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., Mr. Kornstad, using color slides and a videotape, provided a fascinating look at how Russia handles, stores and distributes its grain. In general, primary Russian storage facilities are not well-located from a logistics standpoint, the country's handling and transportation technology is outdated and slow, and aeration and drying equipment is virtually non-existent, he said.

   Mr. Kornstad, whose 25-year career in bulk material handling and facility planning included stints with the George Rolfes Co. and Continental Grain, spent the past three years in Russia working on construction and training on efficient temporary grain storage systems under a Citizens' Network program. The Citizens' Network is an international development and policy organization that administered the Russia project as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development's program to support the development of private, market-driven food systems.

   Most of Mr. Kornstad's work was carried out in the Black Soil region of Russia between Moscow and the Black and Caspian seas, as well as in part of Ukraine. Traditionally, this area has been known as Russia's "breadbasket" because of its large grain production capacity.

      No Country Elevators.

   At its origins, Russia's grain handling system appears much the same as that in North America; during harvest, grain is loaded into trucks directly from combines in the field. But the similarities end there.

   In Russia, the trucks, which have a capacity of about 8 to 10 tonnes, do not deliver the grain to a country elevator or enclosed storage facility nearby. Instead, grain is brought to a large outdoor farm area.

   Because of the severe shortage of dryers, grain is dumped on asphalt pads in windrows to dry, with maize dried on the cob. The system leaves the grain exposed directly to birds, pests and inclement weather, and losses at this stage can approach 30% to 50%, Mr. Kornstad said.

   After the grain has dried, it is piled in a sheltered area with a roof and open sides. Women working with shovels and brooms check the piles for hot spots, flipping the grain as necessary; conditioning consists of using front-end loaders to turn and aerate the grain.

   From there, the grain eventually is shipped to Russia's primary grain storage facilities; virtually no intermediate storage exists.

   The most common type of large storage facility consists of square pre-cast concrete silos holding up to about 108,000 tonnes, some with additional flat storage. Slip form concrete elevators with about the same capacity also exist. The most unique type of grain storage is of pre-cast concrete constructed in round interlocking sections. Grain is shipped to these facilities by truck, rail and vessel.

   Russia has a well-developed water transport system. Vessels are able to travel to and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Caspian and Black seas in the south using the Volga and Don rivers, as well as man-made channels.

   Larger grain vessels carry 5,000 tonnes, while smaller self-powered lighters carry about 1,000 tonnes. Virtually all vessel unloading is done with vacuums.

   Rail shipments are made by Russia's only railroad company, and railcar logistics can be a problem. Grain hopper cars with capacities of up to 95 tonnes are used, although boxcars also are common. The Russian boxcar hauls bulk as well as bagged material, and it has doors in the roof for loading bulk products.

   Trucks are perhaps the most predominant shipping mode. Most carry extra barrels of fuel in the truck bed because hauling distances are long and gasoline or petrol "truck stops" are limited.

   Grain trucks generally are open, flat-bed types with tarpaulins to cover the grain. Trailers also are used. In his three years in Russia, Mr. Kornstad said, he never saw a hopper bottom grain truck or trailer.

      Grain Handling.

   When trucks arrive at a storage facility, they are first weighed and probed. The typical grain probe consists of a cone that is only about 30 centimeters long, so grain cannot be sampled at depths necessary to gauge the quality of the entire load. Automatic probes do exist, but they are generally large, bulky and inefficient, Mr. Kornstad said.

   From that point, trucks usually face a long wait. Unloading, conveying and elevating systems are extremely slow; in at least one example, bird tracks crisscrossed the grain of a truck in line, illustrating the delays in unloading.

   Russian truck dumps are built above ground because the concrete work is different, Mr. Kornstad said. The concrete itself is made of cement and sand mixed by hand.

   Ramps lead up to a standard hydraulic lift platform with wheel chocks. This design creates particular difficulties in icy or wet weather because of the steepness of the incline.

   After a truck drives onto the platform, its trailer, if any, is unloaded first, from the sides. One side gate is opened then the second, and the entire trailer — still connected to the truck — is tilted sideways to disgorge grain into the pit. Then the truck itself is unloaded from the back through the tailgate.

   Russian grain elevators are remarkably clean. Most facilities have cyclone-type dust systems, but without filters.

   An abundance of manual labor accounts for the cleanliness, and the workforce typically takes care of other functions that are automated in more modern systems. A clear division exists between the genders throughout the Russian grain handling system, Mr. Kornstad said. Women typically carry out the "hand work" and cleaning with shovels, brooms and pitchforks, and men operate the machinery.

   Russia slowly is working to bring up-to-date technology and greater efficiencies to its grain infrastructure through projects such as Mr. Kornstad's. But improvements will take time and hefty investments.