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Batch Control Conversion Saves Time, Money, Errors
by Lynn Grooms

Co-op Country Partners, Sauk City, Wis., has a grain division and operates feed mills in addition to fuel and fertilizer businesses.
Aging computer hardware can cause feed mill managers a lot of headaches, but it does not mean they also have to start over with totally new batch control or transfer systems or re-wire their plants. An updated control system may be as easy as switching from DOS to a Windows platform and installing new software—software that costs just about 25 percent of what a totally new control system would run.

When the IT department at Fulton, Ill.-based Agri-King said its computer hardware was getting old and the company could run into future problems with file back ups, Agri-King’s management decided to replace the DOS system with a Windows system. At the same time, it was able to update its control system by installing Windows-based software offered by Sterling Systems & Controls, Inc. The Sterling, Ill.-based company provides electronic batch control and transfer systems as well as systems for complete feed mill automation.

In addition to saving the cost of a new control system, Agri-King has saved on labor. A big advantage of the Windows-based system is that it is user friendly, says Charlie Letcher, plant manager, Agri-King. “It’s been easy for everyone to learn. You just point and click. It’s been especially good for new hires who get up to speed faster.”

Agri-King produces numerous vitamin and trace mineral feed packages. It also produces direct fed microbials and silage preservatives. Ninety-five percent of the feed company’s production is in bagged feed. Agri-King currently produces about 30 tons of feed per eight-hour day.

The company has used a Sterling Controls system now for more than 20 years. “We’ve stayed with them because of their people,” says Letcher, adding that the control company has enabled Agri-King to remain flexible with its various blending needs. “Some of our feeds are very concentrated—as much as two-tenths of a pound per head per day—so we have tight controls. We need good inventory control.” Letcher adds that Agri-King recorded lot numbers and information on manufacturers long before it came into vogue.

“With the Sterling system, we can do everything electronically. This saves labor and cuts down errors [that are more common with paperwork],” he says.

The updated system includes a graphics package that allows operators to monitor bin levels as feed is being used. “We can see when feed is getting into the cone, for example,” says Letcher.

Ken Langer, plant manager, Interstate Mills, Hayfield, Minn., also points to the benefits of having a more “visual” system. Interstate Mills has had a Sterling Controls system since 1993, which it uses for macro-batch processing. The mill, which produces a line of hog feeds, has the capability of producing 100,000 tons of feed annually.

A software update installed last fall has enabled the company to improve its tracking of ingredients—as many as 10 different ingredients may go into starter and finisher rations, says Langer. He adds that the updated control system was easy to install and has improved the mill’s efficiency. “It’s a fast system and is accurate at 40 tons per hour.”

No Need to Re-Enter Data

Co-op Country Partners, Sauk City, Wis., recently installed the Windows software at the end of September and is looking forward to a more efficient process. A program was written that converted the data from DOS to Windows. Therefore, the cooperative did not have to undertake the large task of re-entering all of the formula and ingredient data. This also eliminated the potential for data entry errors.

Ed Achenbach, feed department manager, had noticed the slowing of the company’s outdated DOS system. “It made sense to switch to Windows,” he says, adding that the co-op now will be able to track lot numbers easier and more efficiently.

The Sauk City plant produces about 50,000 tons of feed per year. About 75 percent of the company’s feed production is in dairy, while 15 percent is in hog, 10 percent is attributed to beef rations.

Eric Leis is mill manager at Co-op Country Partners.

Co-op Country Partners has had a Sterling Controls system since 1997 and has used it for the entire batching process. The new Windows automated system, says Achenbach, makes it easier to enter the producer’s batch. “It automatically weighs ingredients and we bill according to what’s in the batch. It also keeps a running inventory on visual graphics so we know when to reorder bulk ingredients.”

The system also allows the mill to keep and access detailed records. “You can go in by last name and the date it was formulated, for example,” says Achenbach, adding that the automated system enables the company “to bill what it sells. There are no shrinkage issues nor does the farmer overpay.”

Before deciding on an automated system, these plant managers recommend talking with your personnel about what they would like such a system to do, such as having the ability to see inventories, improving recordkeeping and having more options or flexibility. Letcher also suggests talking with control system manufacturers about what is possible. He notes that Sterling Controls, for example, works with many different industries and what works in one industry may be applicable to the feed business. “Sterling Controls often can help you do something easier or more cost effectively.”

While it may take some time, these plant managers suggest looking at all of the different options before making a final decision. As these managers found out, a new control system does not necessarily mean having to start over from scratch.

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