Improved grain prices over the last few years have lured many farmers back into grain production across Alabama and the nation.

To capitalize on these higher prices, producers have also had to bring old grain storage bins back into service or build new ones.

That can be a good plan says one expert with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. But Kathy Flanders, an Extension entomologist whose work focuses on stored grains, says producers must know how to maintain grain quality and handle grain safely. She says ignoring these basics could be costly both in financial terms and in personal safety.

"Some have never stored grain before, and for others it's been a long time," says Flanders, who is also an Auburn University associate professor of entomology. "Growers may not know or may have forgotten the potentially destructive power of insects."

Growers must not lose sight of this cold, hard fact, she says.

"If they do, the valuable grain they stored could be worth almost nothing by the time they sell it later in the year."

The Southeast's warm, moist climate makes southern grain bins especially vulnerable to insects and molds. Flanders says farmers should make every effort to prevent insects while bins are still empty.

"We have to be especially careful down here and use all the tools available to make sure the grain is the same quality coming out of the bin as when it goes in," Flanders says.

Like many crops, stored grains can fall victim to a variety of pests. Flanders says there are primary pests, which attack healthy, intact kernels, and secondary pests, which feed on particles and grain dust reducing the stored grain's quality.

Molds can attack grains and grain products at any stage of storage, causing similar devastating damage.

Flanders says the good news is that many advances have been made in managing stored grain pests over the last 10 years.

She says producers should understand most of the insects that can invade grain bins are already living around the storage area.

"While some of these insect species may be brought in with the grain at harvest, most have been in and around the bin for a long time," she warns.

Grain bins are designed for easy loading and unloading of grain as well as protecting it from rain, birds and rodents. They are not well equipped to keep out small insect pests.

"There are a lot of holes, by design or otherwise, that are going to let in bugs," Flanders says.

She offers a series of recommendations for effective pest management in grain bins. First, clean out the bins thoroughly to eliminate starter colonies of insects or molds that could threaten the stored crop. This includes a thorough vacuuming or sweeping to remove insect debris and remaining grain.

Seal unnecessary openings with caulk or expandable foam. Duct tape and plastic may also be used.

Next she recommends using an EPA-approved insecticide to treat the grain bin floor, inside and outside walls and the concrete pad around the grain bin.

"This empty bin treatment will kill the insects that are there and provide some protection against future invasion," Flanders says.

Grains should be stored in the bin at the correct moisture content and should be treated with an EPA-approved insecticide as it is loaded into the bin, Flanders says.

Finally, she says grain should not be loaded above the vertical sides of the bin. The pitched head space is needed to allow access to the grain but also to allow effective aeration and, if the need arises, to conduct an effective fumigation.