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Marshalltown Tech Firm Hopes to Save Lives

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MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa - Harvest season is approaching, and that means farmers across the Midwest will be putting their grain into storage for the winter.

Every year, checking that grain becomes deadly for some farmers when they climb inside their bins. One Marshalltown company is hoping to change that.

Scott Haugan, owner of HOWGAN SCC, is a distributor of software and technology that allows farmers and workers at grain co-ops to check temperatures and conditions inside grain bins without getting in.

According to the University of Iowa College of Public Safety, 17 Iowans died in grain bin collapses from 2000 to 2010. The leading cause of death was suffocation, due to entrapment in collapsed grain.

We visited Haugan on Wednesday, and he gave us a tour of his facility. Inside, it looks more like a research lab than a farm, with several monitors on the walls displaying examples of what's going inside a grain bin. He showed us a graphical representation of rising and falling temperatures, which can lead to condensation.

"Condensation will collect on the underside of the roof, and that condensation ends up dripping on the grain, causing crusting."

But sensors inside the bin - and the computers that run them - pick up on those changes, kicking on the fans before condensation happens. Haugan said this could prevent deaths caused by grain collapses and suffocation. They happen every year in Iowa, to farmers trying to break up grain that's crusted over.

Haugan said his company has installed 300 systems like this in grain facilities across the Midwest, but smaller family-owned farming operations have been slower to adopt them, but he believes the agriculture industry is going through a paradigm shift.

"It's been a challenge," Haugan said. "But the more the early adopters pick up the technology, the more it becomes the norm, and we're at a tipping point at this point."

And with U.S. grain storage needs on the rise, so too is the need for potentially life-saving technology.

"Fifty percent of the storage we need, we don't have yet. With the projected yield increases that the seed producers are already getting, it's only a matter of time before that is represented in the field," Haugan told us.

Haugan and his company are also working with local community colleges to create a new job classification, called "grain management technician." That person would be trained on how to properly use this technology.

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