Trains whistle heralds Rio Creek Feed Mill expansion
The train whistle is heard more often these days in the countryside around Luxemburg.
Since the Rio Creek Feed Mill’s Luxemburg facility completed its third expansion, the number of Canadian National Railroad cars carrying grain to and from Green Bay has increased to more than 600 cars a year, says Andrew Barta, assistant general manager of the mill.
The grain, which is mostly grown in Brown, Kewaunee and Door counties, is bound for national and international markets.
“We recently sold wheat to Pepsi in Mexico,” said Barta. He added that other grain – corn and soybeans – had just been sent by train to New Orleans where it was loaded on a ship for Saudi Arabia.
Since the Barta family bought the Luxemburg mill from the Kewaunee Cooperative in 2008, they have expanded their storage capacity three times. The original 400,000-bushel storage bin was doubled by the addition of a second 425,000-bushel bin in 2011. In 2012, a 555,000-bushel tank was added – giving the mill approximately 1.4 million bushels of grain storage.
The most recent $2.5 million expansion, completed last December, includes a 180-foot tower with a steel dryer on legs that dominates the Luxemburg landscape as well as an additional 70,000 bushels of storage space. The new dryer processes 5,000 bushels an hour compared to the previous equipment, which could dry 1,800 bushels an hour, said Barta.
“It’s the customer service improvements that are most important, said Barta. “This is the first season that we are 100 percent operational … fully functioning with all the new equipment.”
The expansion also includes a new two-story office building, receiving dock, grain receiving pit, and new technology that allow a farmer to unload his truck three times faster, Barta said.
With the new receiving dock, farmers can pull up their truck next to the two-story office building where a mechanical crane on the second floor draws samples of the grain from the top of the truck. The samples are then tested right in the office for moisture content.
The results are instantly read by a computer. Any grain that tests above 15 percent for moisture is trucked to second dock, where it is unloaded into another pit that lifts the grain on a conveyor belt to the top of the dryer. As the grain descends through the tower, it is dried by natural gas heat so that it is immediately ready for storage.
“A farmer who is sitting in line in his truck can’t be out working in his field,” said Barta, noting that the new technology has eliminated the line of trucks that waited to unload their grain during harvest time – from July to November.
“A farmer now should be able to unload his truck in less than six minutes,” he said.
Grain – including corn, wheat, oats and soybeans – that doesn’t need to be dried can be immediately delivered to the storage bins. Then the farmer can decide how much he wants to keep for his livestock and how much he wants to sell, Barta said.
“Think of it like a bank where each grain is a different currency,” Barta said. “We keep the grain so the farmer can check his balance and decide what he wants to save for his livestock and what he wants to sell.”
Grain prices vary daily, so sometimes a farmer will want to wait to sell his grain until he or she can get a good price, Barta said. About three-quarters of the grain grown locally is used by farmers for their livestock, while the other quarter is sold and shipped to nationally and international markets, Barta said.
While many farmers grow grain for livestock, there are also a large number of cash-crop farms that vary greatly in size, Barta said.
“Some farmers grow only a few acres, while others have 7,000 acres of grain to sell,” he said.
Andrew and his brothers Adam, Jacob and Sam are all involved in the day-to-day operations of the family business. Their grandparents, Don and Jeanette Barta, sold their dairy farm in Kodan in 1958 and used the money to purchase the Kodan Feed Store.
Over the years they changed the name and expanded the operations before selling it to their two sons, Jerry and David, in 1988. In 1992, Jerry and his wife, Tammy, bought out David’s share so that he could pursue other interests. Today, Jerry serves as general manager and Tammy does the payroll and handles other duties.
The Rio Creek location is home to most of the company’s staff, which includes 22 full-time employees and another 10 to 15 part-time employees during the harvest season. The four sons are gradually moving into leadership roles. Andrew is assistant general manager for both facilities. Adam has served as Luxemburg site manager since 2015, Jake works full-time as shop manager, and Sam is in sales for a car dealership in Green Bay but works part-time at the mill.
The Rio Creek facility has grown from a 33,000-bushel storage bin built in 1992 to more than 600,000 bushels of storage capacity today, giving the Rio Creek Feed Mill 2 million bushels of storage capacity at its two facilities.
“I can’t remember when we have had empty space,” said Barta. “Most of the storage is being used.”
The need to store grain has changed since the 1970s and 80s when most farmers stored their grain on the farm and only brought it to the mill when it needed to be ground or mixed, he said.
Now farmers find it more convenient and cost-effective to bring their grain to the mill and have it mixed and stored at the mill.
“Then, all it takes is one phone call to have it delivered to the farm for their livestock,” said Barta.
When the grain intended for livestock is brought to the mill, it is analyzed for its nutrient content. The mill then recommends what needs to be added to meet the dietary needs of a farmer’s livestock.
The minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that need to be mixed with a farmer’s grain vary from year to year, Barta said.
“Last year was a very good growing season and we had to add less supplements for the cows,” said Barta.
Barta said that the recipe for feed is similar to that for making cookies.
“When you make cookies, you have to add a certain amount of flour and sugar,” he said noting that for cows the ingredients are just different.
For example, the mill imports canola meal from Canada to add to the grain as well as corn gluten pellets from Chicago.
The mill also has employees trained to develop and implement nutrient management plans for farmers to help manage the application of manure and other fertilizers for crops. They offer soil testing and help them manage manure spreading on fields.
The mill uses Variable Rate Technology to help farmers with more precise application of manure.
“We used to operate by the field, but now we plan by the foot,” said Barta. He said that they currently manage 140 nutrient management plans for farmers in the three counties.
The mill also sells a variety of fertilizers to supplement the nutrients in farm fields that can’t be met by manure application, he said.
Fertilizer and nutrient management is a growing segment of the business, according to Barta.
The busy season for the mill begins with its seed sale pick-up in April and doesn’t end until the last harvest is brought to the mill in November..
“Our goal is to provide the best service to area farmers,” said Barta. “As my grandfather always said, ‘If you are not paying attention to your customer, someone else will be.'”
Karen Ebert Yancey can be reached at [email protected], on Facebook at Kewaunee County Star News Facebook, on Twitter at @EbertYancey or by calling 920-559-1235.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Trains whistle heralds Rio Creek Feed Mill expansion