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First in its class

LaVergne mill honored as 2016’s top commercial dry feed facility
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 2/23/2017


The dedicated employees of Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s LaVergne feed mill are an integral part of its success, says manager Bobby Brown.
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Tennessee Farmers Cooperative’s LaVergne Feed Mill has been named 2016’s top commercial dry livestock feed manufacturing facility by the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA).

AFIA representatives recognized TFC, along with the winners of the premix manufacturing and liquid feed categories, Feb. 1 at the 2017 International Production and Processing Expo in Atlanta. There, the AFIA chose an overall facility winner among winners of the competition’s three categories.

More than 65 of the nation’s top mills, including those operated by some of the industry’s biggest feed manufacturers, entered this year’s competition, says Gary Huddleston, AFIA’s manager of feed manufacturing, safety and environmental affairs. The dry livestock feed category, in which TFC captured top honors, garnered the largest number of entries in the annual contest.

“It’s a great honor for our LaVergne Feed Mill team to be named by the American Feed Industry Association as the 2016 Commercial Dry Feed Mill of the Year,” says Bart Krisle, TFC’s chief executive officer. “This prestigious award reflects the professionalism and dedication to quality that are characteristics of the LaVergne Feed Mill team. On behalf of the TFC Board of Directors, employees, and customers, I say congratulations. We are proud of you for this achievement.”

This is the second time in three years a TFC mill has been recognized for its excellence in feed manufacturing by AFIA. The Tenco mill, located at Rockford in East Tennessee, received the national association’s top award in 2013. In addition to the LaVergne and Tenco facilities, TFC also operates a feed mill in Jackson that serves Co-op customers in the western portion of its market area.

“Two national awards in three years is truly a testimony to the support of Bart [Krisle] and the TFC Board of Directors,” says Randy Henley, TFC’s veteran feed mill operations manager. “Throughout the years, they’ve provided the mills with trust, financial resources, and human capital to stay ahead of the market. Our board’s commitment has enabled our mills to stay competitive with the best of those in our industry.”

Huddleston says AFIA has developed a “rigorous application process” for its annual competition. Entrants are carefully ranked by benchmark criteria, including employee safety and development, regulatory compliance, housekeeping, quality control, productivity and efficiency, community and customer relations, and overall industry awareness of food and feed safety. The committee also tours the top four facilities in each category.

“AFIA created this program in 1984 to provide more than just recognition,” Huddleston explains. “Many AFIA members want to know how their operations — whether they are liquid feed facilities, pet food facilities, integrators, etc. — compare to others in the business. This competition allows participants access to important, anonymous benchmarking information as well as a chance for industry honors.”

Huddleston adds that this year’s competition was “improved and expanded to better serve the association’s diverse membership. In the past, this contest, co-sponsored by AFIA and Feedstuffs, an agribusiness weekly newspaper, designated one facility as Feed Mill of the Year. “This year,” Huddleston says, we divided the program into two stages of recognition, naming four award recipients. First, they chose the top facility in each of the three operational categories: premix manufacturing, liquid feed, and commercial dry livestock feed. Then, from those three winners, the contest committee selected an overall facility winner.

“These are difficult awards to win because of the fierce competition,” says Dr. Paul Davis, TFC's director of feed and animal health.  “So many of the mills we compete with are doing the right things, too. Sometimes only one or two details will make the winner stand apart. Just being able to measure up to those bigger operations is a huge deal; to be chosen as the top in our category is truly an honor.”

LaVergne Feed Mill manager Bobby Brown — whose career in the feed manufacturing industry spans nearly four decades, including 14 at TFC — attributes LaVergne Feed Mill’s national recognition to three aspects of the plant’s operations: improvements, programs, and employees.

Since construction of LaVergne’s first mill in 1958, Brown says TFC has provided funding for consistent improvements in both the facility’s product and process, citing two recent investments.

First, the installation of a California Pellet Mill gyro cleaner in 2015 enhanced the mill’s mineral production capabilities by providing a specialized sifting process that removes unwanted materials.

Brown says this machine helps TFC produce a cleaner, higher-quality product and has helped improve eye appeal with homogeneous particle size.

Then last year, a new automatic fogging system resulted in a nearly 100-percent insect-free mill.

“With this new system, we can fog the whole facility — upstairs, downstairs, basement — in no time,” says Brown. “The new system, which utilizes the mill’s existing FDA-approved, feed-safe pest control products, reaches hard-to-access areas and provides a more even coverage than manual methods. A nearly insect-free environment can be maintained generally with only two treatments each year.

Brown says improvements like these recent investments are only a portion of the feed mill’s quest for excellence. A second move, which he says is “just as important,” is the implementation and documentation of operational policies, procedures, and programs. The manager says he developed a computerized “Model Mill program” in Excel to help track data specific to a feed mill’s operation.

“The program allows us to collect data on every aspect of our daily operation — from housekeeping to running equipment to tons we produce,” Brown explains. “We look at everything: mixing, pelleting, bagging, blocking, bulk loading — the whole nine yards.”

The facility team uses operating efficiency information to aid in management decision-making and monitor plant performance on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, stressing that the data isn’t only for supervisors. Brown says, “We also post the results each month so the employees can see how their area’s efficiency compares with other areas in the plant.”

The mill manager says documentation and training are key when it comes to regulatory compliance. Certified by the AFIA for Safe Feed/Safe Food since 2008, TFC has a written program that identifies procedures for minimizing risks associated with feed manufacturing. These policies and procedures also reflect the facility’s compliance with the Bio-Terrorism Act and the 2016 Food Safety Modernization Act.

Employees attend monthly continuing education and training sessions that address job safety, food safety, and biosecurity. They can also take online courses in feed mill operations and participate in webinars on food and feed safety. Employees who work without injury or unsafe acts reports are eligible for quarterly and annual safety incentive awards.

Additional safety and efficiency measures include annual energy and quarterly air compressor audits. Separate recycling programs for paper and poly materials help reduce both costs and landfill waste, and housekeeping, says Brown, is one of the mill’s most important programs.

“We follow a very stringent housekeeping plan that includes specific schedules for all areas, quarterly wash-downs, and formal, monthly inspections,” he stresses. “We spend a lot of time and effort every day to keep our facility as dust-free as possible. The bottom line is that a clean feed mill is a safe feed mill.”

Brown says that even with the most up-to-date, innovative machinery and well-written, documented plans, the most significant component of any mill’s operation will always be its workforce.

“We can have the best programs, policies, and procedures in the world, but all those mean nothing without a group of dedicated and trained employees willing to do what it takes every day,” says Brown, who notes that the seniority of his staff averages 16 years. “That’s what we have at TFC, and I believe it’s what sets us apart.

“They are eager to do the job well and take pride in their work — even down to sweeping the floor. I’ve been in this industry for 37 years, and this group of employees is by far the best I’ve ever worked with. They are the ones who earned this award and continue to earn it every day.”

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