New university feed mills to help industry find solutions

A wave of feed mill construction is underway at universities around the country. Auburn University officially opened its new feed mill in November 2012, Kansas State University expects to complete construction of its new mill in late April, and the University of California at Davis hopes to begin work on a new mill early in the fall of 2013.


A wave of feed mill construction is underway at universities around the country. Auburn University officially opened its new feed mill in November 2012, Kansas State University expects to complete construction of its new mill in late April, and the University of California at Davis hopes to begin work on a new mill early in the fall of 2013. The last time a feed mill was built on a major college campus was in 2007 at California Polytechnic State University.

To many, it may seem the current construction frenzy is like one-upmanship. That’s simply not the case, said Frank Mitloehner, a University of California-Davis Cooperative Extension specialist.

“People ask if we really need three new feed mills,” he said. “But we’re not competing. We’re all doing research in very different areas for very different needs. Each of these mills will be to the advantage and the benefit of the livestock industry in this country.”

Commercial feed mill operators also stand to gain from this rush of new construction. While much of the equipment installed in these new mills is similar to what commercial mills are using, how universities put their new equipment and technology to use may offer guidelines for an industry that will be facing more scrutiny in the future.

New insights into feed safety

There is little doubt that feed safety is on the minds of feed producers everywhere. Preventing cross contamination and spread of no-virulence pathogens, such as Salmonella, will become even more critical under guidelines in the Food Safety Modernization Act.

However, neither researchers nor mill operators completely understand how or why a pathogen like Salmonella can spread through a mill because no one has wanted to release Salmonella in a mill. No one is quite sure how to sanitize a mill should Salmonella, Listeria or Campylobacter be found to contaminate it.

Kansas State University’s new Cargill Feed Safety Research Center will finally give researchers the first biosafety-level 2 teaching and research feed mill to begin finding the answers to those questions.

Possible decontamination solutions

“We have some hypothesis, but we haven’t been able to test them,” explained Cassandra Jones, an assistant professor of feed technology at Kansas State University. The feed safety research center features a 1-ton-per-hour pelleting system equipped with a high intensity preconditioner and a counterflow pellet cooler.

Jones says the equipment will give researchers an opportunity to study how live low-virulence pathogens interact with feed ingredients, which feed ingredients may be at the greatest risk of contamination, and how the pathogens spread in a real mill setting rather than a bench top. Lessons learned about decontaminating the center between studies may help mills improve their own sanitation practices.

In addition to the center, the facility will also include a new automated 5-ton-per-hour production and teaching mill.

Particle size recommendations

Kansas State University faculty have been dreaming of a new feed mill since Fred Fairchild joined the Department of Grain Science & Industry 19 years ago. Recent advances in equipment and automation make the long wait almost worthwhile. “It’s an amazing facility,” Fairchild said.

One of the key pieces of equipment installed in the new mill is a three-pair high roller mill that will allow Kansas State University to use different methods to research particle size. The industry’s gold standard of 650 to 700 microns for particle size was developed at Kansas State University decades ago. But as equipment has changed, mills have been able to grind more finely.

“This will allow us to come out with a new recommendation relative to particle size,” Jones said.  “The gold standard is not practical for what’s out there right now.”

New mixer coefficients

Developing new mixer coefficients and conducting pellet durability tests will also help commercial mills run more efficiently in the future. Mill managers will be able to access the information through the university’s short courses and seminars.

Fairchild points out that what’s not in the facility is almost as important as some of the equipment that is, such as a commercial horizontal hammer mill and a 100 horsepower pellet mill with a cooler. Provisions have been made to add a second system as the university determines what is wanted or is needed as technology evolves. Similarly, the steam grain flaking system was also built with space available to allow other equipment to be easily added later.

“There’s not much this mill cannot do,” Fairchild said. “And we have room for other equipment as it becomes needed.”

Training leaders

Research is one mission of a university mill; training students is another.

The goal of the new mill at Auburn University is to give students hands-on experience, said Donald Conner, head of the Poultry Science Department at Auburn University. He wants students to graduate with the ability to connect the dots between production, problem solving and economics.

Roughly 60 to 70 percent of the cost in producing a broiler comes from feed milling, Conner said. Giving students hands-on experience milling feed so they can compare feed conversion rates and bird performance with pellets of different formulas can help the industry save money in the long term.

The Auburn University mill features a hygienizer that uses steam and pressure to treat feedstuffs before pelleting. The process could be used as a kill-step to eliminate Salmonella and other pathogens. Conner said poultry breeding companies are using the equipment in their in-house mills and experimental mills to meet biosecurity standards, but the technology is not being used in commercial mills yet.

Like the center at Kansas State University, sanitation and hygiene will be high priorities for research and teaching programs at Auburn University. “Food safety is here for the duration,” Conner said. “We need to keep a feed mill looking more like a food plant in the long-term.”

Commercial mills, with their tight production schedules, find it hard to shut down operations to tweak the system and evaluate different processes. That’s one advantage the smaller university mills have. What they learn about optimizing processes could be transferred to their commercial counterparts.

Automation key

Reliance on automation is another difference between commercial and university mills. While automation has helped commercial mills gain efficiencies and track ingredients, automation offers universities the precision and accuracy needed for conducting research trials.

Students also benefit. Equipment at the Auburn University mill, for example, utilizes Plexiglass where appropriate so students can see inside the machine to watch what it’s doing. The computer-based automated system allows them to observe equipment on screen and then walk into the mill and touch it.

Increasingly, livestock and poultry diets are formulated to include multiple enzymes and micro nutrients. In the past, researchers were forced to add these ingredients by hand or use micro scaling. But automation will allow them to handle these small quantities more efficiently and accurately.

Forward thinking

Without the support of the feed industry, the new mills at Auburn University and Kansas State University would not have been built. Industry support is also spearheading the effort at University of California-Davis. The feed mill at University of California-Davis has been laboring with old, inefficient equipment for years.

Chris Zanobini, executive director with the California Grain and Feed Association, said people can see the future and the impact of the research being done at University of California-Davis in terms of air quality and the environmental footprint of the livestock industry.

“We’ve spent two years working on this project,” Zanobini said. “Our goal is to build something with enough capacity to grow but to be within what is reasonable and what can be used.

Environmental impact

In addition to being a University of California Cooperative extension livestock specialist, Frank Mitloehner was recently selected to chair a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization committee to measure and assess the environmental impacts of the global livestock industry.

He and his team measure the methane in a cow’s exhale using machines they built. The information will be used to create a database of greenhouse gas emission factors for animal feed.

Mitloehner’s research integrates additives into feed to reduce the nitrogen leaving the cow. He works with very small amounts of additives, which need to circulate thoroughly throughout the feed. Much of the research depends on the team’s ability to customize feed, which would be enhanced in a new mill that offered more flexibility.

“As an industry we have learned to be extremely efficient and reduce our environmental impact,” Mitloehner said. “But we need the data in terms of productivity and sustainability and environmental quality and animal welfare, all the things that are at the forefront of consumers’ minds.”

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