From its humble beginning in Guy and Nell Hickman’s backyard in 1944, Hickman’s Family Farms has grown to become the largest egg producer in the Southwest. The Hickman family owns and operates three Arizona locations: one in Maricopa and two in Arlington. In total, it houses 5.4 million layer hens — and an additional 1.3 million replacement pullets — and produces 2.3 million dozen eggs a week with distribution spanning six states, including Hawaii.
The success of Hickman’s egg and egg product business — and the looming demand for additional production capacity — prompted the company to lay the foundation for future growth by streamlining its feed procurement process. In an effort to add efficiency and maximize its cost/labor savings, Hickman’s built a $14 million feed mill with high-speed shuttle rail receiving in Arlington.
In 2002 when the Hickman’s entered into a decade-long feed manufacturing contract with AZ Grain, a privately held, multilocation grain company, it had targeted its growth plans for the Maricopa area; however, shortly thereafter, a population boom forced the company to abandon this long-term vision. Instead, Hickman’s added on to its Arlington operation (referred to as Arlington South) and began construction of Arlington North.
Unfortunately, hauling feed 120 miles round trip from Maricopa to Arlington was as unproductive as it was costly.
“Everyone in the animal industry is looking for efficiencies in labor and the manufacturing process,” explains vice president Billy Hickman. “The reality is that utility and labor costs aren’t going to go down so it was in our interest to address this problem and try to minimize our freight costs.”
And so, in 2008, Hickman’s began researching and planning the construction of its own feed mill.
Building a feed mill
At first, Hickman’s envisioned the new mill to be the same size as AZ Grain’s Maricopa facility — running 600 tons/day on one shift — with the addition of a 20-car shuttle train receiving site. When Billy shared his plan with the large grain houses, they recommended the company reconsider the grain receiving capacity.
“They were concerned about our ability to purchase competitively and to find shippers that would be willing to supply the volume we were looking for — especially in the future as there are fewer small shippers,” Billy recalls.
Hickman’s took the advice and decided to upgrade to accommodate 110-car shuttle trains in bid to secure competitive rail rates and origination points.
“While this certainly increased our costs, there wasn’t as great a [price] jump doubling our production capacity in the feed mill so we decided to go for it,” he notes.
Hickman’s broke ground on its 1,200-ton/day feed mill with a shuttle-unloading site in December of 2011. After eight months of construction, it rolled its feed manufacturing out in phases, mixing its first ton of feed in mid-July. It is currently operating at 500 to 700 tons/day and will continue to add volume as its flock grows.
The company continues to partner with AZ Grain as its primary source for grain purchases and to supply feed to its Maricopa operations.
The 110-car shuttle receiving site required more planning and engineering due to design challenges and the difficulties presented by basalt, an ancient lava rock running 16 to 20 feet below the existing grade.
“Space constraints and traffic flow concerns ruled a loop track out so we installed a ladder track, which consists of three parallel tracks running alongside the Union Pacific mainline,” explains Paul Yeatts, Hickman’s project coordinator.
The ladder track allow for trains to be pulled off the main line in thirds and dumped into a 50,000-bushel receiving pit. Employees use railroad power to move the full cars; open hopper gates using a Calbrandt gate opener; and then move empty cars with a Trackmobile mobile railcar mover.