Digging into the trough
Stevie Knight finds out that animal feed is not the low-value, easy cargo most people assume it is
Sticky or dusty, difficult to handle and sometimes downright dangerous. The question is, why would anyone want to get involved in animal feed handling?
It's simple - it's got potential for terminals who want to dig themselves a niche. David Trueman of DBIS says: “Actually we have been expecting ports to get more involved; it's a good opportunity for them to raise their visibility in the supply chain.”
But, he adds, animal feed presents no easy target. These products come with a number of issues: while powder is fairly stable, if flakes or pellets aren't treated carefully they tend to break up or degrade. And while animal feed may conjure up visions of a low budget operation this is far from the truth: for one, rising expectations have meant the products have inexorably climbed in value.
Stephen Beales of Kingfisher Industrial says he is amazed by the transformation: “You wouldn't believe the standards that are being asked of animal feed now, both farmers and domestic consumers are getting very fussy about what they give their animals. They all want high-end, high-quality food.”
David Huck, port director of Peel Ports concurs, adding that “as the market has matured it has become more analytical of the mineral and nutrient content” which leaves the port in the position of being able to considerably enhance - or damage - the value of the cargo.
Further, as Mr Trueman points out: “As much of it is eventually destined for the human food chain it's treated in the same way as far as regulation is concerned.” He explains a port will have to comply with food safety and traceability standards: these are pretty global and usually rest on the Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP).
Besides testing for things like Salmonella and other microbiological hazards such as Escherichia coli, moulds and BSE, the operator has also got to be able to prove the equipment has been thoroughly cleaned down between different cargos to avoid any cross contamination from products such as genetically modified soybean. Mr Trueman adds that there are also local regulations to take into account “so realistically, a facility will have to have a dedicated animal feed facility or it simply won't be able to comply with the rules”.
It all takes cash. Ports regularly underestimate the cost of investment, “sometimes by a factor of ten”, says Mr Beales. But is it worth it? Peel Ports certainly thinks so.
It has dug into its pockets with the development of its dedicated animal feed terminal at Liverpool and has extended its facility by about 60%, including €10m’s worth covered sheds that come complete with dry membranes below and polished concrete tops to the floors. “Frankly, we could have built the sheds at a lower cost, but doing it this way adds value to our piece of the supply chain as it avoids any contamination.” He adds: “It's all too easy to become a cost burden: if the customers suspect that the product has picked up anything while passing through the port it means somewhere down the line it has to be checked all over again.”
However handling has to be carried out gently: rough treatment will give the product a beating and this is not just bad for the quality of the cargo, it's a safety concern for the port because some of this dust has a high calorific content - in short, it can be explosive “and you do need to comply with ATEX rules and have certified equipment” says Mr Beales, which all adds to the cost.
Dust, especially proteinous dust, can also create health issues that have repercussions well beyond port boundaries: take the asthma epidemics associated with soya bean loading at a number of Southern European ports back in the 1980s. These put pressure on emergency services and sadly nearby communities saw a number of deaths before operations were tightened up.
Despite all this, grabs are the usual unloading method, partly because animal feed comes in hugely diverse forms, densities and of course with different characteristics. “Grabs give us a basic, but very flexible solution,” explains Mr Huck. So, how has Peel overcome the dust issues?
Rather than going for the usual, general purpose variety which are open at the top, the port has gone for fully enclosed, specialist light-bulk grabs with close fitting jaws. Further there's a lot of care taken to fully close the grab inside the hold and only open it once inside the negatively-pressured hopper, a process which only takes a couple more seconds at most. Together these measures do a pretty good job of keeping the dust at bay, says Mr Huck, plus workers are kitted out with face masks, goggles and, if there's a particularly dusty cargo, positive-pressure hoods. He adds the whole operation has become quite sophisticated: “It certainly isn't down to one person pushing round a broom anymore.”
Still, grab operations are open to the weather; these products will often be hydroscopic and while some places can get away with simply stopping work when it's raining, others such as those with heavy or monsoon rainfall will need to look covered unloading of one kind or another. Damp encourages mould, degrades the cargo and makes it pretty difficult to handle: “You can get a nasty porridge if you don't get it right,” says Mr Beales.
He goes on to say that even at the best of times, some kinds of feed can be a little sticky: “This causes issues with flow, storage and discharging the product to and from silos or bins.”
Certain kinds of equipment have been developed to deal with the problem: jams on the exit can be cleared by aeration, while the strangely named 'ratholes' (referring to the way product can plaster itself up against the walls of a silo leaving a hollow middle) are mitigated by both vibration and high-tech linings: in fact a variety of alumina-ceramic tiling has been developed to alleviate wear and prevent vibration from shaking hardware to an early death.
However, Mr Beales adds that the absence of equipment capable of dealing with a moist site can mean “silos being hit with hammers by the engineering staff” to free the material, predictably leading to a shortened life for the storage facility.
While getting the system right is vital, key to it all is the covered conveyor says Mr Huck: “It has to be able to handle different products with different characteristics. You don't want to narrow your options on this kind of investment, you need to keep it broad as the market can change quite quickly, lower density products can suddenly become higher density ones and really you need to be able to handle the whole spectrum; our customers require agility and that's what we do.”
He adds although there is a need for efficiency, it's a balance and if a terminal simply focused on optimising for the product it was immediately presented with, it would run into trouble with the first market change. “Experience shows us it's best to standardise operations as much as possible; the main variable being the ability to run the conveyors at a range of speeds to meet the requirements of the different products: it's fairly simple but it does allow us to meet the steady drumbeat of demand.”
However, this drumbeat still has seasonal peaks, “so what's needed is to be able to flex in response to demand”, he says, explaining that Peel Ports has trained everyone in its bulks division to work across different terminals: “Even our standardising of the IT systems and back-office management comes down to this: to enable everyone to do anything.”
Handle with care
The extra attention required by animal feed can translate into a whole range of value-added services which might help a willing port dig itself deep into its hinterland.
For example, Peel Ports offers screening to remove foreign objects and a magnet runs over the conveyor, picking up any stray metal that might've worked its way past the sieves: “We can give the product an initial vetting,” says David Huck.
In some places there are also requirements for sampling, chemical dosing and last but not least, temperature probing to make sure the feed isn't getting warm. Some facilities also offer the option of turning the bulk over in order to cool it, “but simply knowing that a product is beginning to heat up is necessary”, says David Trueman, because if cargo is left to overheat “it can - and does - occasionally all go up in flames”.
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