The Hays Daily News via Associated Press

GEM, Kan. (AP) -- All across northwest Kansas, massive piles of grain -- virtually all of it corn -- have become a growing phenomenon. Every town, no matter how big or small, has one.

Or four, as is the case in Levant, an unincorporated community of about 100 residents about 8 miles west of Colby.

Ten miles east of Colby, the community of Gem, with fewer than 100 residents, there's another massive pile growing -- thanks to the installation of new high speed grain handling equipment that climbs 16 stories high above the High Plains.

"We can dump a semi in 30 seconds," Deb Ruda boasted of the new equipment at the Gem branch of the Colby-based Hi Plains Co-op.

That might be a bit optimistic, but it is blazing fast, with a 1,000-bushel truck emptied in little more than a minute.

It's an amazing bit of choreography when trucks arrive, positioned over two dump pits at the site. That's when Gary Brogan quickly opens the front hopper all the way, handing off the wrench to Ruda, who opens the back hopper.

Almost as quickly as the second hopper is opened, the front is empty; by the time Brogan closes his hopper, Ruda's is empty as well and ready to be closed. With a wave, the trucker pulls off, making the two-block trip over to the more traditional concrete elevator where the scale is located.

With the new equipment, farmers are able to get back to the field, ready to pick up yet another load of corn.

With so much corn to be harvested, time is critical to farmers, said John Strecker, manager of the co-op. It also more effectively uses high-priced equipment that farmers are using to harvest their bounty.

Make no mistake about it, corn has overtaken wheat as the crop of choice for Thomas County, as well as many far northwest Kansas counties.

A year ago, Strecker said, Thomas County farmers planted 98,000 acres of dryland corn. This year, that hit 155,000. Irrigated corn jumped about 6,000 acres and now totals about 68,000.

Come corn-planting time this spring, "we had the best subsoil moisture we'd had in years," Strecker said.

The push to corn paid off, in a big way.

While wheat traditionally was the biggest crop for Hi Plains, that's no longer the case. Only about 40 percent of the grain handled by the cooperative will be wheat, the rest are all fall crops -- corn, milo and soybeans.

And there's little chance that's going to change anytime soon.

"If we get 8 inches of moisture between now and the first of April ... I think we'll have more acres (of corn) planted next year compared to this year."

To do that, wheat acres will all but disappear.

Strecker was the driving force behind the installation of the Gem grain handling system, but his board of directors agreed to spend the money.

He declined to say what the project cost.

"I'd just rather not say in the paper," Strecker said. "Lots of money. Or it is to me."

Able to handle 20,000 bushels an hour, the grain dumped in the tandem pits is lifted up and then sent over on a conveyor belt to the massive pile.

First put in operation Oct. 9, the pile had reached its 1.25 million bushel capacity Tuesday evening -- 11 days later.

That still left another half-million bushels left to take, all of which will be piled nearby, where augers have been situated for easy load out when the harvest is over.

Actually, the new grain facility at Gem is not yet completed.

Once the harvest is over, contractors will be back on the job building a 250,000 bushel steel bin only feet from the dump pits.

They'll also install a high-capacity load-out auger that will fill trucks for shipment.

"If we would have had a normal harvest, we would have been done in time," Strecker said of the earlier-than-normal harvest. "I've never seen a fall harvest when it's so warm. We've had some 90-degree days this year."

In addition to the Gem project, Hi Plains also purchased a bit of ground just outside Levant and has several piles of grain there.

If the Gem operation works as planned, the hope is to put another high speed facility at Levant.

"Corn appears to be a real crop of the future," Strecker said. "When a bag of corn seed plants three acres of irrigated and five acres of dryland and it takes 5 to 6 pounds of milo per acre, where do you think the genetics are going to go?"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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