Optimizing fertilizer flow is a question of efficiency and equipment.

Producers’ growing demand for specialized fertilizer blends and ever-larger capacity for hauling product leaves fertilizer retailers facing a challenge to manage throughput and keep traffic from backing up at the gate.

The increasing size and complexity of orders has caused many retail fertilizer plants to examine their traffic flow and delivery processes – seeking out inefficiencies in order to keep up with their customers’ needs.

Larger Loads, Bigger Orders

Plants older than 20 years were typically designed with farmers’ single-axle farm trucks in mind.  Modern retailers are now seeing mostly tandem trucks and trailer units roll through their yards to pick up product, and the fertilizer goes into the ground much quicker than ever before.

“Fertilizer application rates are much higher now, and customers are coming in three or four times a day when they used to come in just twice a day for only half as much,” says Matthew Krutzfeldt, operations manager and part owner at Parkland Fertilizers.

“It used to be three or four hour waits for fertilizer because our customers would all show up at the same time,” he says. “We just couldn’t push fertilizer out the door as quickly as people were coming in to pick it up; especially during our very condensed May seeding season.”   

Facilities built over the last two decades were generally placed without much thought given to expansion and, in many cases, the age of a fertilizer plant has retailers re-thinking their operations from the ground up.

“When we get to older sites where the customer wants to add more storage or just be more efficient, we often face the major hurdle of trying to find room to expand without ruining the pre-existing traffic patterns,” says Randy Wright, head of north-central region business development at Marcus Construction Ltd

“We struggle with this issue all the time – finding perfectly good buildings on a location that have just been put in the wrong place for what we require,” he says. “Usually, it’s just easier to build new.”

This was the solution Parkland fertilizers came to when they decided to start from scratch and build bigger at a new facility location. The company put considerable thought into building placement, traffic flow and volumes when developing its 15-acre site plan to ensure that its customers could move through the process as swiftly as possible.

Parkland’s Volumetric Power

A major contributor to Parkland’s ongoing traffic congestion problems was their older batch blender system, which averaged only about 50 tonnes per hour.

In their new facility, they moved away from the old blender to adopt a volumetric system that is able to blend several products simultaneously, as opposed to blending a single product at a time.  As a result, they are now able to blend fertilizer five times faster than at the old plant. 

“Our old facility worked well for the way we were doing things 30 or 40 years ago, but it was becoming clear that we just weren’t able to keep up with demand as well as we should be,” says Krutzfeldt. “With everything now being bigger in scale, our new plant is better designed to accommodate large volumes of traffic and larger truck and trailer units.”

The advances to Parkland’s new facility have reduced wait times considerably, to the point where the longest lineup is now only about 30 minutes. This newfound efficiency also makes it easier on their customers: instead of having to stockpile product in bins during the busy season, producers can pick up on an as-needed basis.

“Our customers are all very pleased so far, and impressed with how smoothly everything runs,” says Krutzfeldt. “The only complaint we hear now is that it’s maybe too fast, and there isn’t enough time to finish their coffees.”

New Investments for Prairie Plains Agro

Prairie Plains Agro of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan was initially resistant to getting into fertilizer commodity, but customer demand along with the ability to access new products convinced them to build their first 6,000 tonne flat storage plant. Like Parkland, the company will be relying on a volumetric system to distribute product by measuring volume and bulk-density.

“We consider ours to be a state-of-the-art system,” says Mark LaRocque, general manager and co-owner of Prairie Plains Agro. “It’s going to be tied right into Prairie Plains’ software and control systems, to the point where we just have to press a few buttons and off we go. We want the entire process to be easy. To be honest, it’s just not easy with a lot of the older batch blending systems.”

“The older batch blending and newer volumetric systems are both very accurate in their blendings. However, in my experience, the volumetric system is simply faster and more efficient,” says LaRocque. “With volumetric, you don’t have to put it into a batch tumbler to blend since you have an auger doing all the work – mixing as it goes into the scale. After that, it just gets dumped right into the back of a waiting truck and away you go.”

To avoid the pitfalls of lineups and long wait times, Prairie Plains Agro’s shipping system has been rated for 150 tonnes per hour, with the ability to transfer blended product to either of two shipping lanes equipped with 50 tonne nominal overhead scales. They also have the capacity to have a Super B load received to the plant in and out within 25 minutes.

LaRocque says it was critically important for his company to meticulously plan each and every step of its first build. Their goal was to make sure that the finished facility runs as efficiently as possible, knowing that an ounce of prevention is well worth a pound of cure.

“We’re determined not to have line-ups of people waiting to get fertilizer during seeding, or any time of the year,” he says. “And we’re not going to be in a panic regardless of the volume we are moving out. It all comes down to good planning and working with our suppliers and customers.”

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