A soy-checkoff funding study has found that weight limits on rural bridges may be too low, making them impassable for farmers' equipment or grain loads.
"We've had to change our route completely because of a bridge," says Woody Green, soybean farmer from South Carolina and a checkoff farmer-leader. "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 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 bridge, the sensors record data on how it 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.
More accurate testing could actually improve safety and efficiency for farmers, processors and communities, says National Oilseed Processors Association President, Tom Hammer.
In a pilot project by the STC and the Iowa Department of Transportation, three rural Iowa bridges tested had load limits 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, the United Soybean Board says. 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."
Preventing bridges from being unnecessarily closed or made off limits to grain shipments could improve efficiency for farmers, USB says. "Soy processing facilities operate 24/7, and our transportation infrastructure is key to continuing to maintain our competitive advantage," Hammer says.
"Our transportation infrastructure is one of our single biggest factors of success," Green says. "The system provides us with a significant advantage over our competitors, and it's something we can't allow to deteriorate."