Keeping bugs away from organically stored grain

Have you ever had problems with the bugs “visiting” your stored crops? We feel you. Read what solutions have we found.

LoginEKO silosis have just been cleaned and are ready to store this year’s crops. Petar Čanak can relax and stop thinking about bugs for a short while. He’s not a fan of them. We can understand why when we learn that he’s the head of the storage department at LoginEKO. His task is to make sure LoginEKO has perfect quality grain stored in an organic way, that is also healthy and safe for human consumption. This means no use of chemicals, so with his team he tries different organic crop protection alternatives simply by trial and error method. So far, they’ve had some success, but not everything has worked as planned. Do you know what they did when it didn’t? They simply tried something else.

Trial and error problem solving

LoginEKO’s vision is to establish large-scale farming, which will at the same time ensure the well-being of our environment, ecosystems, and people. We are creating sustainable solutions for every part of the food chain, starting with agriculture. More importantly, we are among those who pave a different path – but a different, sustainable path is not necessarily the simplest. Our harvest in 2022 yielded more than 6,000 tons of certified crops, all of which needed to be stored in an organic way – the same way they were grown. However, this is not so simple and we faced many challenges. The biggest one was the bugs.

Bugs come with grain, and so the challenge is to stop their development when the grain is stored. “Biological crop protection is not very widespread in Serbia where LoginEKO’s farm is situated,” explains Petar. His team had to do a lot of research for organic crop protection methods. The first method they tried in 2021 was to treat the crops with carbon dioxide (CO2).This means one lowers the amount of oxygen in grain to less than 5% (the process is called ‘hypoxia’) and the bugs cannot develop. The first test was to protect the pea and they did this in a type of cocoon – big hermetically sealed bags. At the beginning, they used small cocoons for a few tons, and when this was successful, they continued using big cocoons with a capacity of around 50 tons for various grains. “This proved to be very successful, so we wanted to expand this method on a big scale,” Petar describes the enthusiastic beginning.

“We rented an old concrete silo and treated 340 tons of wheat with CO2 for one month. We didn’t know what to expect because hypoxia is harmful to people, and we weren’t able to collect samples during the process. When we opened the silo and started cleaning the grains the whole team was present, either physically or virtually, because everybody had their share in this experiment. It was a big moment of excitement – and of disappointment. We managed to control only one type of bug – the yellow mealworm beetle, but the stubborn ones, like the wheat weevil remained.” Petar thinks the failure was probably due to the fact that the concrete silo wasn’t sealed enough. Wind entered the silo and decreased the concentration of CO2. Despite the failure, the experience united the team around a common goal to achieve organic crop protection.

Temperature – an old-fashioned weapon

The team didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket, and tried another biological crop protection approach – through temperature. Petar explains: “When you lower the temperature of the grain to less than 15 ºC, this also stops the bugs from developing and reproducing.” After cleaning the grain with sieves, they realized they were successful and managed to sell the crop as fully organic with no complaints. “But that’s a hard and long process,” concludes Petar.

Were there any challenges with this method as well? “Of course,” smiles Petar, “every day is a challenge with bugs.” Serbia experienced the 3rd warmest summer in about 50 or 60 years in 2022, and heat really suits insect development. You have a lot of generations of reproducing bugs, which is a disaster because it takes a lot of time to clean the grain of insects. On top of that, you also need a lot of energy to cool down the grain with such temperatures outside.”

Petar and his team then planned to improve this storage process by buying a granifrigor, a big refrigerator which cools the grain faster and helps them get ahead of bugs. “Because of the hot summer, we only managed to cool the grain in December, which was too late. Usually, we spot some bugs in November, but because of the heat they were there already in September. The granifrigor will help cool the grain by August so that the bugs won’t surprise us anymore. All of Serbia faced this challenge, but other producers have chemicals in their arsenal, which we don’t use.”

Long-term plans for organic crop protection

The cooling down is a good organic crop protection method, but it only stops the development of bugs. LoginEKO is working on building its own silo with better sealing and trying some new technology at the same time. The new silo will enable efficient treatment with CO2, but Petar and his team also want to explore a nitrogen (N2) treatment, because CO2 has a major drawback due to emissions.

Are any of these harmful to people? “Well of course, if people are in an environment without oxygen, this is harmful to them. Inside the silo, the environment is harmful for people, but it’s not harmful to the grain.”

Since the CO2 treatment also means you release emissions in the air when you open the silo, Petar sees the N2 treatment as more organic: “The air already contains 78% of N2. With a generator, you take it from the air and concentrate it to 99% in the silo. After the treatment, you just release that N2, which was already in the air, and you don’t produce any emissions.”

How do we know it will work?

“We don’t,” says Petar with a smile. “There will be challenges. We call them “growing pains.” There are so many things we still don’t know. We can get some information from other organic producers, but the rest we’ll just have to learn by ourselves.”

One open question to which we don’t have an answer is whether this method will be useful for all crops. So far, we know it’s usually used with wheat, barley, and rye, but we would also like to try it on maize and other crops. Petar is hopeful: “We hope it’ll work on everything, because the method targets the insects, not the crop. There are good chances for success, but we’ll only know it when we try it.”

We would also like to explore how this method can lower the fungus effect on seeds: “There hasn’t been much research so far, but we are interested in testing it for ourselves.” The trial and error method means that Petar and his team won’t always succeed, but none of the knowledge they gain on the way will be wasted. When LoginEKO’s new silo is finished in a year or two the team will already have a lot of knowledge about CO2 and some on N2, and would be able to speed up the work and research. They are sure they’ll find their organic crop protection method. And who knows, Petar might become a fan of bugs – when they are far away from his stored crops.

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