The search for a better, safer way to handle seed in bulk quantities has led to a new industry standard for grain handlers.
In northcentral Indiana spring had not arrived by mid-April. A mix of snow and rain whipped across barren, open fields, some of which had felt the discs of farmers tractors with its promise of the planting season to come. Others were still in stubble from last season's harvest. Inside the huge, white and red plant of Pioneer Hi-Bred International (www.pioneer.com) in Tipton, however, planting season was in full swing. And it had been since last October.
"We start shipping product to our sales reps in early October," says Bob Fearnow, soybean and wheat leader. Fearnow is responsible for moving 2.4 million bushels of soybeans and wheat seed through this multi-building complex located in America's heartland.
The way the seed business works is that after processing, the manufacturer—in this case Pioneer—ships the seed to be planted to its sales reps who sell it to the farmer. Eventually, after several more stops along the way, products get to the dinner table. Packaging and shipping soybeans and other bulk seed products to hundreds of farmers has become more complex as varieties of soybeans and other crops have increased in number, and the number of farmers planting crops have decreased, while acreage has grown.
Security, tracking and accountability to assure the purity of the lineage of the seed, takes high priority throughout the manufacturing, handling and shipping processes.
"We used to sell seed in fifty-pound bags and then the industry kind of shifted to poly-woven jumbo bags [2,500 pounds] in the late 1980s," says Mark Batchelder, director of production operations for Pioneer (Des Moines, Iowa, www.pioneer.com).
Some packaging is still done in 50-pound bags and jumbo bags, but these are less than ideal ways of handling grain. Bachelder says jumbo bags in particular are difficult to handle even on pallets. They can't be stacked more than two high at best when off the pallet. And this stacking is in a pyramid configuration that uses a lot of floor space.
Because customers preferred getting product in bulk, Bachelder and others set out to find a better way. The search led them to discussions with Buckhorn Inc. (Akron, Ohio, www.myersindustries.com), and the development of a bulk seed handling container called the PROBOX, which is quickly becoming the industry standard for bulk seed handling.
The first PROBOX hit the market in 1997. Some of the original boxes are still in use at the plant in Tipton. More than 325,000 of these bulk boxes have been purchased by Pioneer, alone. Other major seed producers are also adopting this center-flow container and Bachelder's vision of an industry standard for handling seed in bulk is becoming a reality.
"Originally," recalls Batchelder, "we weren't focused on plastic. We looked at plywood, steel and even some racking concepts, for a better, safer way to handle our products."
There are many unique features of the box, not the least of which is the way it can be nested for return shipping to the plant, says Rick Brasington, Buckhorn's manager for products going into the food market.
"Fully assembled the box is 65-inches tall. When nested for shipping back to the plant it's only a bit more than 39 inches tall," says Brasington. Each 56.5-inch-square container has a capacity of 58.3 cubic feet. For soybeans, that's about 2,500 pounds. An empty container weighs 335 pounds.
A four-way entry in the base allows faster handling by lift trucks. Also, the feet on the box are reinforced with steel to reduce damage. Document holders are located on both 45-inch faces of the box for faster identification. Pioneer uses bar coding to track all of its products and the containers.
"We don't have a strict tracking system for the containers," says Fearnow. "We scan the product [and its container] as it's picked up by the lift truck operator for loading into the trailer for delivery. Then we scan the label at the dock position so we can account for the numbers of containers leaving the building. The dealer rep is then responsible for getting that same number of containers back to us."
The plant in Tipton also ships products to other plants within Pioneer so there is a constant float of containers throughout the company's operations. Using standardized containers makes this intraplant exchange much easier.
Tony Herman is the assistant plant manager in Tipton. He says safety is the greatest benefit the company has realized in using the bulk boxes for moving soybeans, corn and wheat from this location. "
When you compare the ease of handling of the boxes to the jumbo bags," he says, "there's almost no comparison. The poly bags slip and are easily damaged. The farmers like the boxes because it makes it more efficient in how the product is used and stored. With a bag, once you open it you have to use it all."
Herman is referring to the side-access sliding door of the box that allows one person to control the flow of seed from the box. All of the contents, or just what the farmer needs at that moment can be extracted from the box. The farmer is safely away from all moving parts of the box and the contents. The center-flow discharge completely empties the box with no spills.
Sorting and packing
Using a home-grown computer program, Fearnow uses diagrams to explain the movement of soybean seed from the field, through the plant and back out to the farmers for planting. The many varieties have to be kept separate, which requires all varieties to carry a code number throughout the grading, screening, cleaning and packing process to assure the farmer receives the variety ordered for the climate, soil conditions and other variables.
"We ship the majority of our bulk orders to our sales reps in the field," says Fearnow, "who, in turn, deliver to the farmer, or the farmer comes to the sales rep's facility for pick up." Some of the really large farmers will pick up their orders from the plant, or have the seed transferred at the plant from the bulk boxes to special hauling trucks for delivery to the farm. Even that bulk hauling process involves the containers. Soybean seed is commonly ordered by the box load so if the farmer is going to have it delivered via truck, the boxes are emptied, at the plant, into a special device that will fill the truck with the number of bushels the farmer has ordered. The containers are then moved back into the plant and used for more seed of the same variety, or cleaned and used for another product.
"Because there is lag time from when we process a particular variety of seed and when it's moved to the field for planting, we get a bit more than one turn per year out of the containers for soy," says Fearnow. "If we use them internally we get more turns." They get a second turn out of boxes between product lines that have different planting seasons.
Following the flow
Empty containers returned to the plant, most commonly by the sales reps, are inspected and cleaned. Bob Hartley, warehouse leader and the guy in charge of much of the logistics, describes the cleaning machine for these big boxes as a small car wash. And while the capacity of the box is a bit less than a VW Beetle, the washing process is much the same. Containers enter one end of the system. As they move along on roller conveyor, they are sprayed with jets of water, inside and out. The final step is a blast of air as they exit.
"We clean them all," says Hartley, "because they are exposed to all the elements around a farm." Pioneer has 12 washing stations throughout the country. The larger facilities, such as this one in Tipton, will also clean containers for smaller facilities.
Cleaned containers are stacked in the warehouse until needed for order fulfillment. For soybean orders, an empty, nested, container is placed on a roller conveyor line and moves into a holding station on an automated turntable where an operator removes its lid. A clamping device lifts and inverts the top section of the box, after which the operator locks the two halves.
Filling the container is computer controlled to maintain accuracy and security of variety of the seed ordered. It takes about 90 seconds to fill 2,500 pounds of seed into the box, and 30 seconds to drain the seed at the farmer's end.
The container moves on roller conveyor a short distance to another workstation where the operator places the lid on the box and secures it with special insertion clips that are knocked into place. "We used to use plastic wire ties to secure the lid," says Fearnow, "but they were too timeconsuming to use."
The container rolls to the end of the line where a lift truck operator scans the bar code label on the box and moves it to the staging area with the rest of the order. In a staging area lanes are marked on the floor to indicate a single trailer load. The order is often a mix of PROBOXes, pallets of 50-pound bags and a few jumbo bags.
"We still have to package in some smaller quantities," explains Fearnow, "because the farmer might have a small area to plant that does not require a full box and he doesn't want a jumbo bag because once the bag is opened he has to use it all."
Companywide Batchelder says 29% of soybeans are still sold in 50-pound capacity paper bags, 52% in PROBOXes, and the remainder in jumbo bags. There is also a small percentage sold unpackaged in truckload quantities.
Outside, the wind is still howling at 30 mph. Rain and snow rattle against the sides of the building and planting season seems a long way off. Inside managers like Tony Herman are busy working on projects to accommodate increases in business, particularly corn with the anticipated increase in planting for ethanol fuels.
"We're anticipating an increase in corn acreage of about eight million to nine million acres," Batchelder says. "Last year we were down about three million acres."
The challenge for Pioneer managers isn't just determining how much acreage will be planted. It's also in guessing which crops the farmer will opt for.
"We have to stay ahead of the curve," Batchelder says with a laugh. "We have to be sure the farmer has corn seed when he decreases his beans. For example, we're projecting about an 11% to 12% increase in corn this year, and that means a decrease of about 7% in soybeans. So the fundamentals of the market tell us that the increase will continue on into 2008. What they don't tell you is where the acreage for additional planting will come from."
The seed transport boxes have improved warehouse efficiency by about 150% for Pioneer and its customers. They also protect the product better than other methods of packaging against weather and rodents. Regardless of whether it's corn, soybeans or wheat, Bachelder says Pioneer will be ready with its hundreds of thousands of PROBOXes because this workhorse doesn't care what the crop is.
The container moves on roller conveyor to another workstation where the operator places the lid on the box and secures it with special green insertion clips that are knocked into place.
In the staging area lanes are marked on the floor to indicate a single trailer load, or order. This order is often a mix of PROBOXes, pallets of 50-pound bags and a few jumbo bags.
The bags of seed had to be lifted manually and mixed in micro bins. "There had been some injuries lifting bags," says Dennis garke," grain operations manager. "We needed a way to decrease the 700-plus bags per week we were dumping manually."
Garke and his safety manager did some research and discovered some grants from the ohio Bureau of Workers compensation that offered a four-to-one allowance for ergonomic improvements.
"We had to work with our suppliers to figure ways to bring the ingredients in large totes or containers," says garke. "The ideal box was Buckhorn's center flow box."
Garke was able to get a sample box from Buckhorn's plant in nearby Bluffton, ind. He documented how he could auger the ingredients from large bins into hoppers, which in turn would fill the center flow boxes. The boxes could be shipped to his suppliers, filled and returned to the farm for feeding animals.
"Part of the documentation included us reporting all the injuries we had," says garke. "We had to document lost time on the job and the cost to the company."
The company's plan was approved by the state and the ergonomic improvements began in 2001 with the purchase of the seed boxes.