By Jim Hale, grain farmer, Lancer, Saskatchewan. Find him on Twitter as @FarmerJim79 and at his blog, What I know (And What I Don’t): http://cjkfarm.wordpress.com/. This post originally appeared there.
After tweeting about how the grain terminal that I have my flax contracted with was having rail car logistical issue (that happen to work in my favor). I found myself tweeting back and forth with some of my tweeps about loading rail cars.
For those that don’t know Western Canadian farmers are entitled to load their own rail cars if they see fit. The industry term is Producer Car. Basically, the farmer orders their cars, they get spotted at a siding, and the farmer loads their grain.
We (my father) started loading Producer Cars with a group of other farmers (four total) in the late 1990s. At this time the local elevators had been either torn down or mothballed. The other option was to truck grain 30 to 60 miles. Commodity prices were low and margins were thin at the time. Facing increased trucking costs and still having to pay terminal elevation charges, they decided that it would pay to load their own rail cars, saving both the elevation cost and minimizing truck freight costs.
In those years we might load two to three cars for each producer three to five times per year. At times there would be more than one producer’s cars there at a time. It was decided that to speed things up for everyone, they would all haul one producer’s at a time (rail line wanted a 48-hour turn around on car loading). So, no matter who had cars coming everyone hauled. I’m not entirely sure how they sorted things out when there were differences in volumes. I was pretty much “neck down” only in the operation at the time.
In the years since I started farming on my own I have not loaded any of my own cars. but a have continued to help neighbours load theirs from time to time.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from the experience:
- Safety First: Rail cars are serious pieces of gear. They are very heavy and rather tall. Add to it a cargo of around 198,000 lb, and they pack a lot of momentum even at very slow speeds. Best to keep them moving very slowly. Other potential safety hazards are as follows: You could get blown off the top of the car. Get struck from a lid blowing closed or open. Fall into an open car. Fall between cars. Slip on a ladder or slip off the car in the rain, not to mention the various scenarios of getting crushed or caught buy a moving or runaway car. I advise working with at least one, possibly two, other people. I would also suggest some kind of fall arrest gear, but I realize that’s not always a feasible option. Still, use caution around these beasts.
- Siding Setup: Having a nice siding really helps. Ideally it’s level and well drained and at a reasonable elevation level to the tracks. Usually the track will have a very slight slope to aid in rolling cars along. Sometimes you just get what you are given when it comes to the siding. Undoubtedly some are better than others.
- Prep the Cars: When the cars show up, take time to inspect them. Look for damaged and inoperable hopper slides and missing lids. Also check for material still in the cars. I know that half loaded/unloaded cars have shown up before. Call ASAP if any of the cars are inoperable. You don’t want to start loading a car only to see grain leaking out the bottom.
- Good to Have Small Equipment: A 2×4 on the ground, to mark the spot where the auger unloads, helps when moving the car to the next compartment to load. Full bin alarms on an auger can help if you forget a load or are bad at math. A 4? goose neck bar or pry bar can help close bent or misaligned slides. A rail wheel jack can assist in moving cars in the track if they wont roll on their own. Also a calculator, pen, pencil, pad of paper to track loads on. A grain shovel, for spills. You may want to take samples while loading the cars as well.
- Good to Have Big Equipment: Obviously a truck of some kind and a loader of some kind are needed. Large swing augers seem to be the favorite. Although, if I had my choice a large belt conveyer would be my pick. End-dump trucks work well; single trailers are also good. Paired trailers (Super B) less so, unless you have some specialized equipment. Some situations may require an additional tractor to help position cars.
- Weights & Measures: Access to a scale is usually important. Weigh in your loads if possible. Rail lines have load limits. If, by chance, you are caught over on a car they will pull out the overage and sell it to a local market, usually at feed price. Conversely you are usually paying freight to load limit —half loaded will cost the same freight charge as a full car. Get as close to the limit without being over, OK?
- Tips for Loading Cars: Any time I’ve been involved in car loading, we try to load the cars as evenly as possible. This can be a bit tricky as some cars have either three or four compartments. As stated above, sometimes a tractor can be helpful in moving cars if they have rolled past where you want them. Otherwise you may need to reposition your loader.
- Tips for Moving Cars: Depending on how many cars you get spotted at once, I recommend either loading them as pairs or triples. Or, once you have two or three loaded, release them from the string. I find this makes things easier to control when the cars are loaded. When releasing brakes I like to use the wheel to gradually take the brake off instead of using the release lever. I also prefer only using one car in the chain to brake all the cars (usually the first loaded).
Are you using more producer cars or thinking about lining them up for the 2014-15 marketing season? Have you got any tips to share? Post a comment below!