Checkoff hopes new test gives farmers access to more bridges

Farm Forum

ST. LOUIS – There are a lot of factors in agriculture that farmers can’t control. So when a farmer has conquered countless unpredictable scenarios — drought, flood, snow, hail — it only becomes that much more frustrating and expensive when he or she travels to the local grain elevator and comes to an unpassable bridge.

A new soy-checkoff-funded study on rural bridges found that the weight limits that make many of these bridges unpassable for farmers could be too low.

Woody Green, soybean farmer from South Carolina and a checkoff farmer-leader, has experienced this inconvenience firsthand. “We’ve had to change our route completely because of a bridge. The last-minute shift cost us extra time and fuel we hadn’t accounted for. Especially around harvest season, or during a period when we’re shipping a crop, that makes a huge difference.”

Bridges are typically inspected visually. Because safety is the highest priority when analyzing bridge structure, many err on the side of caution when setting weight limits. The checkoff helped fund a study conducted by the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) to use a more precise test to set bridge restrictions and remove the guesswork from the equation.

The testing method developed by Iowa State University’s Bridge Engineering Center involves attaching sensors to strategic points on a bridge. When trucks move across, the sensors record data on how the bridge responds. By getting a more detailed account of a bridge’s status, there’s potential to remove unnecessary weight restrictions from rural bridges. This information can also help county departments of transportation determine which structures need repairs the most.

National Oilseed Processors Association President, Tom Hammer, says, “The knowledge and methodologies gained from checkoff-funded studies, such as the accurate testing of bridges conducted by the STC, can increase safety and improve efficiency for farmers, processors and communities by providing more accurate testing methods of weight limits on existing bridges.”

In a pilot project by the STC and the Iowa Department of Transportation, each of the three rural-Iowa bridges had its load limit lifted. With nearly three quarters of the nation’s 607,380 bridges in rural areas, similar outcomes in other states could make a big impact on farmers. A longtime checkoff partner, the STC plans to work closely with soybean boards in other states to test more rural bridges.

“If a bridge is closed or load-limited, what would often be a five- or 10-mile journey can easily increase to 20 or 30 miles or longer,” says Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the STC. “Our goal is to see this more accurate way of testing bridges widely adopted in communities where the problem is more pronounced.”

Transportation is a major pillar of U.S. agriculture, and preventing bridges from being unnecessarily closed or made off limits to grain shipments could improve efficiency for farmers. “Soy processing facilities operate 24/7, and our transportation infrastructure is key to continuing to maintain our competitive advantage,” says Hammer.

“Our transportation infrastructure is one of our single biggest factors of success,” adds Green. “The system provides us with a significant advantage over our competitors, and it’s something we can’t allow to deteriorate.”

The 70 farmer-directors of USB oversee the investments of the soy checkoff to maximize profit opportunities for all U.S. soybean farmers. These volunteers invest and leverage checkoff funds to increase the value of U.S. soy meal and oil, to ensure U.S. soybean farmers and their customers have the freedom and infrastructure to operate, and to meet the needs of U.S. soy’s customers. As stipulated in the federal Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soy checkoff.