In 2014 the Swedish agribusiness Kalmar Lantmän opened ‘the most modern feed mill in the world’. Designed and built by Dutch industry pioneer Van Aarsen, the project cost €50 million and took four years to complete. Replacing two older mills – one that made feed for pigs and poultry, one for cattle – the new all-purpose factory has five production lines and can run at a manufacturing capacity of 100 tonnes per hour; and it runs 24 hours a day, five days a week.
The mill’s entire production process is automated. Each stage of the proceedings – from the intake of raw ingredients to dispatch of the finished product – is tracked and can be remotely controlled by one or two operators.
What does automation in such a mill look like? How much of an improvement is it over ways of old? And what does Kalmar’s investment say about industry trends? What is the relationship between automation and the latest pressures and demands experienced by manufacturers of animal feed?
The global annual rate of meat production has increased dramatically over the last 50 years and now tops 300 million tonnes. That equates to over 1.4 billion heads of livestock. Milk production currently exceeds 700 million tonnes per annum. These increases are in line with the still-growing world population.
Daniel Bercovici, chairman of the International Feed Industry Federation, has said that by 2050 we will need to produce 60% more food in order to feed 9 billion people, ‘and do so sustainably’.
Thus, with the production of both animals and their feed intensifying, and agricultural resources at the same time limited, efficiency must be of ever-increasing importance.
The efficiency principle has already dictated much about the form commercial animal feed takes today. Once the importance of a balanced diet for livestock was understood late in the nineteenth century, manufacturers were quick to apply the technology of the time – hammer mills and batch mixers – to realise the first mass-produced feed. Pelleting came soon afterwards: ingredients were transformed through high-temperature, moisturised compression and extrusion through dies (moulding holes) into an easy-to-handle, uniform product.
More recently, various types of liquid applicator have been introduced into the manufacturing process as a way of enhancing both the feed’s quality and palatability. They contribute a range of elements, from oils to enzymes.
In its basic outline, however, the process flow has over the years remained remarkably unchanged. And automation of the key stages of weighing, dosing, grinding, batching, mixing and pelleting, began as far back as the late twentieth century. Where automation technology continues to drive forward the efficiency of feed manufacture is primarily through the use of system data.
The exact composition of feed in terms of protein, energy, minerals and moisture is crucial in livestock production. Waste and substandard animal performance are the penalties of nutritional formulas that fall short of precise calibration.
Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR), used for many years in laboratories, is a feed analysis tool now within the reach of modern feed mills. NIR uses the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum to produce quick and accurate analyses of minimal feed samples. Being able to monitor the nutrient content of ingredients as they pass across in-line probes has significant implications for the future of precision feed formulation. Moisture content, to take the most obvious example, if found to be too high or too low, might be adjusted in the mixture before it is pelleted.
The capturing of large quantities of actionable data across the system is the key feature of automation technology as it continues to evolve. Not just an aid to feed formulation, statistical process control extends to everything from batching accuracy to truck unloading times. The challenge to manufacturers is to respond to both historical and real-time data by making the appropriate parameter adjustments.
Feed companies face the simultaneous challenge of working within an ever more exacting regulatory framework. From the European Union’s 2001 ban on the use of mammalian meat and bone meal (MBM) in ruminant feed, to the USA’s Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, various legislation has lifted industry safety standards to unprecedented levels.
These standards can be enforced only if the production process is transparent and trackable in every respect. The progress of every element must be monitored, as they say, from field to fork.
For some time, automation systems have used scales and sensors to weigh, measure and track ingredients as they are processed. Now, in addition, electronically-stored information about raw ingredients is being brought to mills on radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, on the trucks or the ingredients themselves, to be captured automatically on arrival. This information relays details concerning the materials’ provenance and supplier to the mill’s system and can give notification of any quality control procedures that might need to be enacted.
The same technology can be used after dispatch right up to the point of the product’s arrival at a farm’s feed bins. This interlinking of supplier, mill and farm is fundamental to the kind of transparency in the food chain upon which both the forces of globalisation and consumer concern are increasingly insisting.
That a farm’s operations might then generate feedback about its requirements for the mill’s use illustrates the dynamic nature of automation when supported by the smart use of data exchange.
Of course, many feed mills have yet to invest on every level of automation technology. Once the heavy-duty robotic operations are in place, continued expenditure in the realms of IT can seem disheartening in an industry sector known for its old habits and tight profit margins.
On the other hand, advanced control systems are every year becoming less and less the preserve of the white-coated technician. Intuitive graphic interfaces, online support, even the involvement of phone apps, are all helping powerful technology be seen as increasingly accessible.
And as the same technology continues to shape itself around the demands of ongoing industry trends, it can only be a matter of time before it is also seen as indispensable.