Replacing a 95-year-old feed mill with a state-of-the-art facility takes time and money — a significant amount of both.

For the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), the challenge was even greater because funding for such a project traditionally would come from the university and the state of Illinois. Both had limited resources and a long list of needs.

The solution was a public-private funding model with money from the university and private entities. The university made a $6 million down payment and financed the rest, while private industry came through with a significant amount of monetary and equipment donations. Some equipment was donated outright and some was sold at a significantly discounted price.

The result is the new $20 million Feed Technology Center on the university’s South Farm complex.

“We wouldn’t be at this stage if we were not able to use this new mechanism for building the Feed Technology Center,” said Rodney Johnson, head of the university’s animal sciences department within ACES. “It’s a long list of companies that have contributed in some way in helping get this done.”

The facility, which is in the process of commissioning and should be mixing its first diets in February, will be a national hub for new discoveries and advancement in animal management, nutrition, and production. It will accelerate advancements in technology in feed ingredient utilization, new processing technologies and improved efficiency in food production, according to ACES.

In addition, it opens up a multitude of opportunities for faculty research, hands-on student experiences, collaboration within the university, industry outreach, and potential third-party use. It will be able to produce up to 8,000 tons of feed per year, much in small batches.

“We will have the ability to do research that results in real-time diet formulation, the ability to work with novel ingredients, and the ability to do work to improve the efficiency of ingredient utilization,” Johnson said. “We can improve animal efficiency, which will allow us to produce more animal protein with less input. That’s going to be important to meet demands for animal protein that will double in the coming years.”

Long overdue

While the old feed mill consistently produced feed the last 95 years for animals raised in campus facilities, that’s about all the obsolete facility could do.

“It’s badly outdated, the technology and the equipment,” Johnson said. “It’s not a facility that lends itself to academic programs or outreach activities. It’s not really a safe environment to take students in to. A new facility is long overdue.”

Over time, the land around the facility was developed so that it is now virtually surrounded by athletic facilities and the university’s Research Park.

“The department needed a new feed mill and the university would be happy to repurpose the land where the current feed mill sits,” Johnson said. “Those were two driving factors (in building the new center).”

The vision for a new feed mill facility started 20 years ago but construction was held up by funding constraints. With the public-private model in place, construction was able to start in June 2019. Johnson said they were hoping the mill would have been done in the fall, but like most construction projects, there were a few issues that have since been addressed. Fortunately, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic did not have a significant impact.

“The construction company had very good plans,” he said. “They were good at pivoting and making adjustments.”

ASI Industrial served as the construction company for the project and also provided equipment for the center.

The Feed Technology Center capabilities are integrated to provide full system services that include storage of grain and specialized diet ingredients; precise diet formulations; milling, ingredient processing; and pre-mixing, mixing, pelleting, extruding, crumbling, bagging and delivery of animal diets.

It includes 200,000 bushels of grain storage, sized to accommodate the grain that is produced on the university’s farms, Johnson said. AGCO donated three GSI 42-foot, 15-ring bins with accessories including power sweeps, floors, fans, sidewall stairs and full peak walkaround. Receiving capacity is 2,500 bph and includes a 250-bph GSI dryer.

Vortex provided 32 slide gates and diverters, including its Gravity Vee Diverter, Titan Slide Gate, Seal Tite Diverter, Aggregate Gate and various accessories, controls and switches to increase valve performance and lifespan.

The feed mill is made of slipform concrete. Although it can produce 8,000 tons of feed per year, it’s not about capacity, but precision, Johnson said.

“We need to be able to produce hundreds of experimental diets every year,” he said. “We can do larger batches, but it’s also about doing small batches, experimental diets.”

To that end, the facility has 14 ingredient bins with a total capacity of 28,000 cubic feet and 12 loadout bins that can hold 38 tons each. This will make it easier to handle the smaller diet mixes, which are transported by truck throughout the university’s campus. The mill can produce bulk mash feeds, which are bagged on a JEM bagging line, and pelleted feeds. Bühler supplied equipment for pelleting, including: a DPCA pellet mill; pellet line controller; AHLB pellet cooler; and a DFZL pellet crumbler.

With the new facility, the department will be able to expand its research capabilities, academic programs and industry outreach, Johnson said. Like a commercial mill, the facility is fully automated with hardware and software from Bühler and has a multi-channel DCMA inline NIR imaging system, also donated by Bühler.

“It will allow us to assess nutritional value of ingredients and adjust diet formulations in real time,” Johnson said.

Not all ingredients have the same nutritional value from one batch to the next. For example, soybean meal could have different levels of protein. In the past to account for that variation, additional protein was used. At the Feed Technology Center, protein levels can be measured, and adjustments can be made in real time.

Data from the system will be uploaded into Bühler Insights, powered by Microsoft Azure, allowing analysis by data scientists. This analysis, combined with Bühler’s team of technologists and process engineers, along with University of Illinois animal scientists, is expected to uncover new insights and provide new tools for feed mill operators and animal producers. Overall, Bühler supplied $1 million in equipment for the facility, some through donation.

For the first time, the campus will have an extrusion system dedicated to manufacturing animal diets, including a Wenger extruder and auxiliary processing equipment donated by Alltech. This will help with research into using ingredients with low nutritional value as well as broadening the feed mill’s capabilities into pet food manufacturing, Johnson said.

“We have one of the top companion animal programs in the country,” he said. “With this system, we will be able to manufacture experimental diets for pets.”

Johnson believes the center will provide multiple opportunities to engage other departments within the university. For example, students in engineering or computer science could study data generated by the extruder. The data also will be a valuable tool in training students enrolled in the Computer Science (CS)+ANSC and CS+CPSC (Crop Sciences) programs, and in advancing precision animal agriculture, a critical ACES area that aims to address local and global challenges related to food and agriculture, families and communities, and the environment.

“It’s a place where the sky is the limit,” Johnson said. “I see lots of opportunities for engaging groups all across campus.”

The old feed mill did not lend itself to student visitors. In designing the Feed Technology Center, additional space was added around milling equipment, making room for groups of students who may visit as part of a course.

Outreach to the industry is another component of the center, including hosting workshops relevant to the industry, Johnson said. There could also be the potential of offering the mill to third parties conducting research.

“We haven’t worked out that model yet,” Johnson said. “From the extrusion perspective there may be a company that has proprietary information on a diet they’re trying to develop, and they want to have access for a day or week to run some experiments.”

Many times faculty members work with feed companies, exploring the utility of new ingredients, he said. The center will allow them to use novel ingredients to design a diet, manufacture the diet and then feed to animals in an appropriate setting.

“I see tremendous opportunity in being able to leverage the facility in that way to create new feed technology,” Johnson said.


Donations, big and small, were critical to the center’s construction and for its continuing operation, Johnson said. Several made cash donations, including Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), which contributed $2.5 million to the center.

“We do a lot of the research with them,” Johnson said. “The size of the gift was very significant. All of the donations are important. Some of the smaller gifts are very meaningful because it demonstrates the value they place on having this relationship with the university and college of ACES.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Pork Producers Association also made financial commitments to the project.

The most recent monetary contribution of $50,000 came from Compeer Financial, which invests in causes that further the agriculture community through innovation and education.

“Those are very impactful because they are coming from producer organizations,” he said. “We are very happy to have that support.”

In addition to the NIR system, the automation hardware and software and the pelleting equipment, Bühler supplied a MultImpactMAX hammer mill, a Speedmix paddle mixer, a Hymix and Hytherm long-term conditioner and retentioner along with cyclones, filters, airlocks and fans. Bühler also provided commissioning and startup for the feed mill.

University of Illinois’ focus on advanced technology and the future really sets it apart from other universities, said Dan Lundt, director, feed and oilseeds North America, for Bühler.

“How they’ve integrated technology into agriculture and the programs they have for students is really unique,” he said. “That’s the same world Bühler lives in. We’re a very technology focused company and how that can apply into agriculture, food and feed production.”

For Bühler, not only is it important to have students learning on its equipment, but the data that will be generated by the center is also key.

The company has set sustainability targets to reduce waste and use less water and energy; collecting data from the center will help in reaching those goals.

“This will be such a digital journey,” Lundt said. “This is such a great opportunity to work with an engaged partner to find a way to solve these big problems in the world. Feed is one really important piece.”

Donors to the University of Illinois Feed Technology Center:

  • 4B Components Ltd.
  • ABB
  • AGCO
  • Alltech
  • APEC
  • Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM)
  • ASI Industrial
  • Bühler Inc.
  • Cablevey Conveyors
  • Compeer Financial
  • EBM Manufacturing
  • JEM International
  • Illinois Farm Bureau
  • Illinois Pork Producers Association
  • Rotex Global, LLC
  • Schlagel, Inc.
  • Union Special
  • Vortex
  • Wenger Manufacturing
  • Keith and Opal McMillan Family