ForFarmers, the Netherlands-based feed producer that is the sector’s biggest operator in the UK, opened in 2019 a £10 million (US$13 million) plant at Exeter in the southwest of England, with the focus on improving efficiency.
World Grain in December met with Steven Read, chief operating officer of ForFarmers in the UK, who explained that the company had built a new plant around the old one, something that was a major challenge. The result is a more than doubling of the mill’s annual production capacity from 140,000 tonnes to 300,000 tonnes.
Read stressed ForFarmers’ mission statement’s reference to “for the future of farming.” The aim is to improve animal health and welfare, achieve better returns and greater efficiency.
“It’s not about making cheaper 18% cake,” he stressed. “Our plan is to help farmers respond to efficiency, profitability, the threat to animal protein production.”
ForFarmers has bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and Poland and sells about 10 million tonnes of animal feed per year. The animal feed markets in all those countries, except Poland, are stagnating or in decline.
“The investment in Poland has been because it is a growth market,” he said.
Poland’s market is focused on poultry, a growing sector across northern Europe. Having entered the Polish market, ForFarmers now has a balanced portfolio of the different sectors, existing of swine, ruminants and poultry. The feed company aims to share knowledge and experience across countries with its different market characteristics.
Read identified three areas of investment to make the company’s vision of future farming a reality. He stressed that ForFarmers is “not here today, gone tomorrow, but a long-term sustainable business.” In spending for the future, the priorities are investing in infrastructure, in people and their skills, and in improving data handling and integration.
“Infrastructure (investment) really has two main purposes: to increase the efficiency and sustainability and get the right quality of feed and being there for the long term,” Read said. “Many compound feed manufacturers in the UK have facilities that are 40 years old.”
“It’s very much geared at production efficiency and logistical efficiency. The process of manufacturing animal feed has not really changed for decades.”
Its long history meant that ForFarmers had “a lot of intellectual property,” in the business.
Read referred to ForFarmers’ Nutrition Innovation Centre, where nutrient and formulation research takes place.
“Nutrition innovation is an ongoing iterative process,” he said. “You are not suddenly going to make the iphone of animal feed.”
The new facility is 15 meters taller than the previous mill structure to accommodate a new, energy-efficient vertical feed conveyor transport system, which will reduce the site’s energy consumption but also increases product quality.
Equipment suppliers for the new mill include Van Aarsen and PTN, both of whom are based in the Netherlands.
The biggest share of the investment in the Exeter plant went into building a new advanced outloading system.
“We believe it is unique in the UK,” Read said.
Under the finished product bins there are two traveling weighing systems, mounted on rails.
“There are enough bins to make a replicate of whatever vehicle needs loading,” he said. “We know when lorries are going to turn up. The weighers travels along rails, filling a copy of the lorry.”
Then, when the vehicle is in place, the bin slides open and discharge into the compartments of the vehicle. The new investment means that the loading time has gone down from between an hour and an hour and a half, to around five minutes. The new plant is all about logistics efficiency, with new equipment making it possible for fewer drivers to do the job.
“Our energy usage per tonne is reduced by 10%, a dramatic step change,” he said. “It’s much better than the 3% or 4% we were hoping for.”
The plant has been made simpler, with new equipment increasing volume. There is now an integrated blends plant.
“We had a separate facility,” he said. “Part of the cost is to incorporate a specific blend plant.”
Unlike most feed plant blending facilities, which consist of little more than a backhoe loader in a shed, the dedicated lines at Exeter mean that loads of compound or blended feed can be combined.
The plant is ideally located.
“It is in a very ruminant-dense area,” he said. “What we are making is focused on ruminants, especially dairy, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset — a massive market, with a lot of farmers to be served.
“We are the guys who brought back bulk feed tankers. Tankers have many advantages including efficiency, loading advantages, ensuring product quality and safety when offloading.”
Product quality is dramatically improved, he said. What makes the difference is the improved way the product is blown during loading. Using a lot of air tends to damage the product.
“Tankers are pressurized,” he explained. “It pushes. The delivery pipe is full rather than being half empty.”
Tankers also have a safety advantage.
“They don’t tip,” Read said.
The fact that tankers don’t tip means no issues with overhead cables, for example.
“The downside of tankers is that they can’t do backloads of raw material,” he said.
Upgrades at other plants
The investment in Exeter has been accompanied by spending at ForFarmers’ other plants in Portbury in Bristol, where new material bins were added, as well as at Newcastle under Lyme, Preston and Penrith, a series of locations that run, as Read put it, “all down that swathe of the western part of the country,” matching the UK’s major livestock producing areas.
“ForFarmers is Europe’s leading animal feed business,” he said.
ForFarmers is a total feed business, supplies a full range of compound feeds, blended feeds, straights, coproducts and forage products.
“Our thing is not to push more cake onto them,” Read said. “The real thing that sets aside the efficiency of the UK is the amount of production from forage.”
People are key to the success of the ForFarmers business. By investing in staff, the company said it gains credibility with customers, who then value the advice offered on farm.
“It’s all about the quality of the people,” he said. “The imposition of milk quotas in 1984 put a lot of young people off entering the dairy industry. This extended to the feed industry, too. After their abolition in 2015, there has been an increase in high-quality young people showing an interest in the animal feed sector and looking for rewarding careers. ForFarmers recognizes this and is actively trying to secure the next generation of talent.”
ForFarmers is funding placements at some of the country’s leading centers of agricultural training, including a scholarship at Harper Adams University and placements at the universities of Nottingham and Aberystwyth.
“And after placements, we’re trying to get back to basics and make it interesting,” he said.
It also is setting up ForFarmers academies, covering ruminants, poultry, pigs and production.
“The production training module has just launched in the UK,” he said, with its first meeting at Exeter in November.
They involve a mixture of classroom and practical training.
“We want to steal with pride what we can from the continent,” he said. “Their farming input markets are very different. A Polish dairy farmer is a different proposition to a UK dairy farmer.”
There is only one way to feed a cow, but there are different farming systems. Access to knowledge from its sister operations in other countries makes ForFarmers unique in the UK feed market, Read said.
“We’re trying to create an environment that attracts the right people,” he said.
That included attracting people from outside the farming and food industry.
“People are seeing agriculture as a much more interesting industry to come into,” he said.
There is cross-fertilization within the company.
“I came back to the UK two years ago,” said Read, a British native who has been a member of the company’s overall executive committee since 2014 and was its Netherlands-based director of supply chain until December 2017. He started his current role on Jan. 1, 2018.
“A large part of the management team is from outside (the UK),” he said.
In the UK, ForFarmers has a significant share of the dairy feed market. Read insists the focus is not produce.
“What we focus on is output we get, compared to what you put in,” he said.
The third area for investment is in data, its handling and management.
“Everybody talks about big data,” he said. “There’s a big contrast between farming in the UK and farming on the continent. They are much more keen to benchmark.”
Farmers in the UK are struggling with the idea of being open to sharing data and collaboration.
“We are not as efficient as we could be,” he said, emphasizing the need for benchmarking to improve productivity.
ForFarmers is getting its Agroscoop data analysis tool, launched for the pig sector in 2018, up and running in dairy.
“It’s live and happening in the Netherlands,” he said. “We aim to spread that. It doesn’t have to be exclusive to ForFarmers. It’s more complete if it is industry-wide.”
He noted that UK dairy farmers already are handing over data under the longstanding National Milk Records system.
“They’re always worried suppliers will get and use it as a stick to beat them,” he said. “We believe it’s the right thing to be investing in. Let’s be more cooperative.”