Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Less trouble than a shovel

May 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

An automatic grain store is still going strong in Cambridgeshire after almost 50 years. Judith Tooth pays a visit.

Ninety year-old grower John Lacey still has the 1971 editions of Farmer and Stockbreeder, and Arable Farmer and Vegetable Grower, with write-ups on his then new automatic grain store. What motivated him to come up with such a design?

“I didn’t like shovelling corn,” he says. “I thought there had to be an easier way.”

Serving an apprenticeship in Bury St Edmunds with agricultural engineering company Cornish and Lloyds gave him plenty of experience taking engines apart and working on combines – even though he had to cut short his training when his father became ill. Those skills, and a healthy dose of common sense, served him well in designing a system to move grain automatically, he says.

In the early days he collaborated with fan makers Matthews and Yates. Farmworkers Maurice Foreman and the late Doug Mason helped John develop his ideas and designs, and a 1400t store was built on the family farm at Fulbourn, near Cambridge.

Keen to sell John’s patented air sweep system to other farmers, they produced a demonstration model, built a marquee and took it around the country’s agricultural shows – up to 20 a year.

As the years went by, and, with them, some engineering companies, it became harder to find a market for the system, but John stood by his design. Eight or so years ago, when more land had been added to Queens Farm, a new 3000t store was planned, which would more than double storage capacity. Honiton-based manufacturer of grain handling equipment for 75 years, Perry of Oakley, was brought in to incorporate the Lacey air sweep system into the design.

High capacity

“John wanted the new grain store to incorporate his air sweep system – which was very forward thinking for its time – to avoid the need for any bucket or shovelling equipment,” says Mike Callaghan, the company’s agricultural sales manager.

“It’s a very large self-emptying on-floor store and it can handle vast tonnages of grain, with an intake of 100 tonnes an hour, aspiration cleaning equipment and a Perry levelling conveyor which fills the building level automatically. So it’s tipped, cleaned and conveyed into the store with no levelling, no input. We’ve made loads of levelling systems over the years, and I think this is the largest one in the UK.”

A tunnel runs through the middle of the grain store, with a giant fan at one end to force air along its length. Above the tunnel is a walkway and the grain distribution system. On the floor runs a series of laterals at right angles from the tunnel, with those nearest the tunnel bigger to ensure sufficient velocity of air all the way to the sides of the store.

Along the sides of the laterals are closely spaced angled louvres pointing back towards the centre, directing the air flow to sweep the stored crop along the floor and into a lower conveyor under the tunnel.

Solar power

“As well as using the air to move the grain, it can also dry it by moving up through the heap,” says John’s son, Robert. “Even if the grain comes in dry – and we are great believers in using the power of the sun – it is warm, so during the winter time we will run cold air through it.

“I know lots of farmers have underfloor ventilation so that they can put farm machinery into the grain store once it’s empty, and, with the laterals, we can’t do that. But if you have one big heap of grain there’s nowhere you can move it if there is a problem. We make sure we leave an empty space in the store so that if there is a hot spot we can turn the grain by moving it automatically to the empty space, or if a lot of dust has settled at the top of the pile we can put the grain through the suction cleaner again and then move it back. And, of course, it’s all done without the need of a shovel.”

The older store, with 1400t storage, runs on the same Lacey system, but with an input of 60t/hr and a moveable central grain distributor above the tunnel instead of the levelling conveyor system.

But it does incorporate a grading facility, so grain can be moved from one store to the other as needed. Poorer quality milling wheat can be added to feed wheat, for example, and screenings are used for bird feed or ground for Robert’s sister, Sarah, to use for her sheep and pigs.

Other enterprises

As well as wheat, barley, sugar beet, linseed and – most recently – ahiflower, are grown at Queens Farm. Rich in essential omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids, ahiflower, a member of the borage family of plants, is an alternative to fish oil, says Robert, who enjoys being an early adopter of new crops.

Similar in height to linseed and harvested in early July, the seeds develop on the stem rather than in a pod, so it’s important to harvest it in dry, still conditions to avoid losing seed to the ground. He’s trialling four varieties on 5ha this year for Nature’s Crops International.

Aside from growing crops, the family is very committed to raising money for charity.

Thirty years ago, after Sarah was involved in a car accident, John and his wife, Jill, decided to raise money for the local rapid response doctors. They soon realised so many other charities needed help and their fundraising dinner became an annual event.

“We decide as a family which causes to support, and then donate to four charities each year, changing three of them every four years,” says Robert. “This year we were raising funds for the Air Ambulance based at Marshall’s in Cambridge, Papworth Hospital, which is relocating to Addenbrookes Hospital, Guide Dogs for the Blind and the British Legion.

“We keep back a few Lacey turkeys – we produce a few hundred each Christmas – and put up a marquee in the back garden. Friends come and do the catering for a sit down dinner for 200 guests. Then we have an auction, with meals, punting, paintings, glider flights and so on, and a raffle. We don’t know yet how much was raised at this year’s dinner, but last year we raised around £17,000, and the total stands at £307,000.”

This year’s charity dinner was John and Jill’s last, but Robert and Sarah are thinking about carrying on the tradition, albeit with a new look.

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