March 04, 2013 | By Jackie Roembke
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Egg Ranch Cracks into Feed Production

Hickman's Family Farms invests in $14 million feed mill with high-speed rail receiving

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 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, the Hickman’s built a $14 million feed mill with high-speed shuttle rail receiving in Arlington.

Driving change

In 2002 when the Hickman’s entered into a decade-long feed manufacturing contract with AZ Grain, a privately held, multi-location 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 and recalibrated its growth plans. The 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 utility and labor cost aren’t going to go down so it’s 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 a feed mill of its own.

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 a 20-car shuttle train receiving site. When Billy shared his plan with the large grain houses they recommended the company reconsider its 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 large shipping facilities continue to be built and there are fewer small shippers,” Billy recalls.

The Hickman’s took the advice and decided to upgrade to accommodate 110-car shuttle trains in order 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 hired design/build firm, SM Associates Construction, LLC (SMA), to serve as the general contractors and subcontractor VAA provided the structural engineering for the project.

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.

Rail solution

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 out a loop track so we installed a ladder track, which consists of two parallel tracks running alongside the Union Pacific mainline,” explains Paul Yeatts, Hickman’s project coordinator.

The ladder tracks 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 rail car mover.

Given the rail configurations, Hickman’s opted for an underground rail receiving system housed within a 10,000-square-foot tunnel.

While the feed mill is set up to receive 10,000 to 12,500 bushels/hour — or a quarter of grain receiving — the engineers set up the receiving pit to handle ¾ of a railcar so it can be parked and dumped.

SMA project manager Doug Eiden explains: “The pit can handle almost an entire car in the pit and will keep the unloading process moving. By our math we figured the 50,000-bushel receiving should get the trains unloaded in the 10- to 11-hour range fairly routinely.”

Whole grains and soybean meal are dumped into the same pit. To eliminate the potential problems caused by handling these commodities on the same system, the company installed a special patented receiving conveyor that can handle commodities at different rates.

From the receiving pit conveyor, the product is dropped on to a Schlagel Inc. receiving transfer belt conveyor that is not capacity sensitive. Two 25,000-bushel/hour receiving legs then elevate the product to the top of the bin where a Schlagel dual inlet distributor delivers the grain to its destination: the large storage bins, over to the daily feed mill storage bins, i.e. two Chief Industries 25,000-bushel hopper tanks, or to a 104- by 120-foot flat storage building for the soybean meal storage.

Provisions have been made for the installation of a hard car unloader for the soybean meal cars.

“If they’re receiving corn and want to bring one railcar down the line they could route it directly into the two hopper tanks next to the feed mill for their grinding supply,” Eiden explains. “Or they could send railcars of soybean meal to the bulk storage building without interrupting feed batch operations. This allows Hickman’s to explore local producers or other local supplier to service their operations.”

In February 2013 Hickman’s unloaded its first 110-car shuttle train in less than 10 hours; it will receive one train per month to maintain its supply.

Rail access will also allow Hickman’s to explore the shipping needs of the local growers. In addition to precisely tracking grain movement between the facility and AZ Grain, the company will use its C&A Bulkweigher to weigh local crops for shipping. From the bulkweigher, weighed products can be conveyed to the truck receiving lane or to the rail line.

The load-out system was design at 25,000-bushels/hour and can handle roughly 25-car units.

Feed mill workflow

In addition to the monthly six-figure savings from reducing its freight costs, Hickman’s decided to bring its feed production in house better control inputs and feed quality.
“If the best grains aren’t used in the feed, we can actually tell the difference in the performance of the chickens,” Billy says. “It serves us to control the accuracy of formulations.”

Three full-time employees — general manager Dago Ortiz; assistant mill manager XXX; and XXX, maintenance — manage the mill’s 120-ton/hour batching system using an Easy Automation control system.

Grain is pulled out of one of the facility’s two 550,000-bushel Chief Titan storage bins by a 25,000-bushel/hour Schlagel reclaim belt conveyor that delivers grain to the two Schlagel receiving legs and a Schlagel swingset distributor feeding to the Chief hopper tanks. From there, grain is moved on a Schlagel reclaim conveyor to a storage bin surge over the 50-ton/hour RMS roller mill where the grain is ground.

A Schlagel reclaim auger moves the ground grain with a 100-ton/hour grinding leg. Past the grinding leg, another swing-set distributor offers a few options: the grain can go to load out [to service local dairies] or fill select ingredient bins within the feed mill.

Rather than installing one large roller mill machine, the Hickman’s opted for two smaller machines, only one currently is in place; installation of the second rollermill will allow it to double its production to 1,200-ton/day.

Within the grinding system, a 10-ton/hour hammer mill is used to mill off-grade local products, which are then reclaimed back into a leg and delivered to ingredient bins by a dual-inlet distributor.

Outside, an 8-ft. by 8-ft. truck receiving pit handles minor bulk ingredients. The flush-floor dump handles 200 bushels capacity, fills a 10,000-bushel Schlagel round-bottom drag conveyor and delivers the product to a 10,000-bushel/hour receiving leg. Ingredients are discharged by a four-duct distributor on the leg that feeds to the hopper tanks, the ingredient bin distributor or to the soybean meal storage building’s fill conveyor.

Inside the mill, there are 18-ingredient bins for bulk minerals providing up to 80 tons of storage per bin. Main ingredient bins are reclaimed back to the scale hoppers by Schlagel screw conveyors; large mineral bulk items are reclaimed to the scale hoppers by Easy Automation double-auger screw conveyors. The mill has three weigh hoppers and an Easy Automation microsystem, which utilizes 10 5.5-cubic-foot holding bins and four tote bag unloaders to deliver ingredients to the mixer via the weigh belt conveyor.

The site includes three liquid tanks: a 12,000-gallon fat tank, a 10,000-gallon choline tank and a 8,000-gallon methionine tank.

After being weighed in scale hopper mounted with load cell scale supplied by Southwest Scales, the ingredients are dumped into a 6-ton Scott Mfg. dual-ribbon twin-shaft mixer to create the finish feed. The mash is dropped into a surge hopper below the mixer where it is taken away by a 180-tons/hour Scott paddle drag conveyor. From there the feed moves to a Schlagel mash leg and either goes to an ingredient bin — if it’s a high-concentrate pre-mix ingredient — or to load-out bins, which is controlled by a Schlagel syncho-set distributor.

The feed load-out station contains six 30-ton load-out bins.

The mill runs one shift, six days a week. It is not constantly running at full capacity as the flow is broken up by the moving of grain and receiving of incoming ingredient trucks.

More layers, expand reach

Hickman’s plans to build more laying houses in the near future.

“We could actually triple our size with the capacity of this feed mill simply by adding hours of the day, increasing the shifts,” Billy explains. “Between layers and replacements, we can easily grow to about 15 million birds.”

The company aims to become a Southwest regional supplier of eggs, egg products and fertilizer.

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