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Checkoff hopes new test gives farmers access to more bridges

ST. LOUIS, MI -- Many factors in agriculture are beyond what farmers can control. So when a farmer has conquered countless unpredictable scenarios — drought, flood, snow, hail — it becomes more frustrating and expensive when he or she heads for the local grain elevator and comes to an unpassable bridge.

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

Woody Green, a checkoff leader and soybean farmer from South Carolina, 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 rural bridge's status, there's potential to remove unnecessary weight restrictions. 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 improve safety and 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 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 ten-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."

In June 2014, the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee (MSPC), joined with officials from STC, Michigan Department of Transportation, Saginaw County Road Commission and Dennis Schornack from the governor's office to explain the bridge-testing concept.

"We are working with various road entities in Michigan in hopes of using this technology to help growers have efficient access as they move inputs and commodities," says Kathy Maurer, financial and international marketing director for MSPC. "Working with the government entities takes time, but we will continue to work through the system to help Michigan's farmers."

Transportation is a major pillar of U.S. agriculture, and preventing unnecessary bridge closings or making bridges off limits to grain shipments could improve efficiency for farmers. "Soybean 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 the single biggest factors of our 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 the United Soybean Board (USB) oversee the investments of the soybean 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. The goal is to ensure that U.S. soybean farmers and their customers have the freedom and infrastructure to operate, and to meet the needs of their 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 national soybean checkoff.

The Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee manages soybean checkoff funds to increase return on investment for Michigan soybean farmers while enhancing sustainable soybean production. A board of farmer-leaders directs MSPC on behalf of the more than 12,000 Michigan soybean farmers. For information about soybean checkoff results, call 989.652.3294 or visit