When the spring window for fertilizer application opens, dealers will be challenged to move tons of product to fields being readied for maxed-out yields. Blenders are key links in the application chain. “Overall the industry wants to move more product at a lesser expense at faster rates,” says Mark Anderson, national sales manager with Yargus Manufacturing. “The systems are bigger now. Time is money.”
Great sales figures at blender manufacturers we talked with reflect the urgency dealers are feeling. They’re still careful when planning capital expenditures due to the volatility of the fertilizer market, but more projects are underway, says Jim Crane, marketing manager at A.J. Sackett & Sons. The company recently received several large orders for high capacity blend towers and loss in weight blending systems, as well as wholesale terminals.
Jim Carlson, sales representative with Waconia Manufacturing, says his firm is getting more phone calls about either building new mid-sized facilities or upgrading existing equipment at an established location. And instead of large 20,000- to 40,000-ton buildings, he’s getting inquiries about 5,000- to 10,000-ton buildings.
Bruce Hinkeldey with Ranco Fertiservice sees another trend. “Retailers are considering purchasing the ‘Cadillac’ version of equipment instead of just getting by with the basic items,” he says.
Adding Vital Products
Capabilities such as adding micronutrients or incorporating chemicals into the blend continue to grow in popularity, especially in light of this winter’s crop prices, notes Anderson. Producers are wanting to maximize yields in 2011 by maximizing fertility levels, “then backing that up with the little things that might give a couple extra bushels here or there — that’s where micronutrients, stabilizers, or inhibitors come in,” he says.
The technology to incorporate micronutrients and apply fertilizer coatings is one of A.J. Sackett’s main focuses, says Crane. “Towers utilize our HIM (high intensity mixer) mixer designed specifically for high speed blending and coating. Loss-In-Weight systems incorporate state-of-the-art coating technology for individual products,” he explains.
Hinkeldey notes that Ranco’s blender systems can accurately dispense minute quantities of dry and liquid material. “We developed this feature because of the low-use-rate products being put on the market. This advantage gives the retailer the ability to react to the changing needs of their growers,” he says. Liquids, like dry products, can be dispensed on the declining weigh system to insure accuracy — and all this is done without slowing down load-out time.
Accuracy, Efficiency Gains
Hinkeldey says that the accuracy of the Ranco’s declining weigh (DW) system is the reason it’s so sought-after. “Each product is continuously weighed as it is being dispensed into the blend, which translates into accurate end-of-season inventories. No one wants to come up short on high priced products,” he says.
Indeed, the need for accuracy is heightened these days in light of variable fertilizer prices. Anderson notes that back when potash cost $100/ton, it didn’t matter if a dealer gave customers a few extra pounds of product. But now that potash and other fertilizer prices are as high as they are, retailers can’t spare the losses, he says.
Blender manufacturers are also stepping up on automation, as they see dealers wanting to do more with less and control costs, including reducing labor. Automation advances at some manufacturers include careful monitoring of inventory. “The dealer needs to be more in tune to inventory control and usage,” says Yargus’ Anderson. It goes beyond entering debits and credits. “I’m talking about actual automation of the blending systems to where there’s real-time communication, real-time inventory tracking at a keystroke,” he says.
That might sound elementary, but Anderson notes that agriculture has always been somewhat behind the times when it comes to automation of dry fertilizer plants on both the operations and accounting sides. “Allowing the dealer to take computer-entered orders and move them through the system with simple keystrokes and having data flow back to confirm actual transactions — that empowers the dealer with real-time information,” he says. Yargus is developing its own automation blending software that connects the blend system directly to the customer’s agronomy software, giving the dealer streamlined operations with real-time inventories.
Waconia’s Carlson points out that the tighter inventories are — and the more fertilizer that goes out in a short time — the more reliable and efficient the equipment needs to be. “If your business is going to happen all in a three- to four-week period, you’ve got to make sure your equipment is working. We pride ourselves on making sure whatever we put out is going to be reliable,” he says.
Waconia is now offering a number of features to speed up load-out and extend longevity of its tower systems. Carlson says the company has added 275-ton capacity blend towers (formerly the largest was 200), and towers can now be built with up to 18-ton blenders inside. NTEP-certified load cells right on the blenders take the extra weighing step out of the process — and the cells can act simply as scales in load-out for single-product wholesale business. For increased longevity, structural components in towers are now available in hot-dip galvanized steel and holding bins are now available in 304 stainless steel.
To meet dealers’ needs for more efficiency, some companies have introduced blender units at the larger end of the market in the last year. Adams Fertilizer Equipment developed its new 13-ton vertical blender, called the Lo-Pro 102. With a profile height of 16 feet, 4 inches, it has a wider, more stable base, larger intake and discharge capabilities, an extra large gear reduction box, 75 hp chemical duty electric motor, and a heavier-duty scale assembly complete with powder coat paint. “Adams is steadfast at meeting the needs and demands of the ever-growing fertilizer industry,” says Michael Tibbett, sales manager.
Rob Heiden, engineer with Doyle Manufacturing, points to his company’s brand new 13-ton direct drive rotary blender, a unit he calls “the industry’s fastest,” with a discharge rate of 9.9 tons per minute. He says it uses fewer parts than traditional chain drive blenders, and the direct drive system has a heavy duty planetary gearbox coupled to a TEFC motor.
When looking to buy or build a blender system, manufacturers emphasized two things:
• Experience. “Contact an equipment supplier or somebody you know who’s done a project similar to what you want,” says Carlson. Most companies will take the time to visit with dealers extensively to assess their needs. Carlson notes that the Waconia team has experience with hundreds and hundreds of towers and thousands of other installations that they have built to draw from. “We learn so much every day from each installation we have,” he says, “that every blender that goes out has something tweaked on it or changed to make it better.”
Adds Hinkeldey: “Go with the system that has been proven over time. The lowest cost equipment is usually not the best buy. You may save 5% to 10% on the initial cost, but how much are you really saving when you have to repair or replace the system sooner than expected?”
• Plan for the future. Think about how much fertilizer you’ll need to move in 5, 10, 20 years and plan accordingly. Systems last an average of at least 15 years, says Crane. “Dealers owe it to themselves to invest in the latest technology and highest quality systems that will carry them forward.”