Farm & Field
Auburn University’s Don Conner, who directs the AU Department of Poultry Science, has reason to smile during a visit to the $7.1 million teaching, research and production facility.
New Auburn Milling Facility is a 12,500 Sq. Ft. Classroom
By Alvin Benn
Don Conner’s long wait is over and he’s ready to get to work at one of Auburn University’s newest facilities – a $7.1 million feed production plant that will serve more than one purpose.
The Poultry and Animal Nutrition Center contains all the bells and whistles of much larger commercial operations, but it will do nicely when it comes to teaching as well as production.
"There’s nothing like this in the Southeast," said Conner, director of the AU Department of Poultry Science. "It will enable us to take a close look at process control because of its importance to the poultry industry."
The new feed mill replaces an antiquated facility built four decades ago and basically out-of-touch with all the changes within the poultry industry, especially when it involves producing nutritious food for broilers.
The 12,500-square foot building also doubles as a classroom, one that will provide hands-on experiences for students who are majoring in poultry science.
Conner and his staff are developing a course that will familiarize students with the nuts and bolts of just what a feed mill is all about.
A big sign points the way to a $7.l milling operation at Auburn University.
Not all students enrolled in agriculture are familiar with the intricacies of milling operations, said Conner, who grew up in Virginia, but not on a farm.
That didn’t stop him from focusing his academic future on what he’s doing now and he’s as enthusiastic today as he was when he first started toward his doctorate.
During a recent tour of the facility for the Cooperative Farming News, Conner discussed the poultry industry at length as well as issues surrounding one of Alabama’s best kept secrets.
"One of the questions we’re faced with is ‘How do we efficiently feed animals?’" said Conner, 54. "How do we do it well and in a safe way? That’s vital to our state, nation and the world."
Most Alabamians are unfamiliar with poultry production and its role in the state’s economy. Conner is happy to point that role out.
He doesn’t have anything against cotton, but wonders why promotional material about Alabama often has photos of cotton fields on covers.
"Cotton production pales in comparison to poultry," he said, referring to a chicken industry that has soared into the billions of dollars annually. "Just check your shirt and you’ll see what I mean."
By that he meant places of origin for shirts and other garments coming to America from China, Vietnam, Brazil and other countries. In so doing, Alabama’s textile industry has virtually vanished.
"The last thing I’d want to see is broiler imports from countries where we may not be sure about safety," Conner explained. "It’s one thing to buy a shirt made somewhere else, but we don’t need to be relying on someone else for our food."
America is the world’s largest poultry producer and Alabama plays a key role in that agricultural area. It ranks just behind Georgia and Arkansas when it comes to poultry production.
Alabama’s top poultry producing counties are Cullman, DeKalb, Marshall and Blount with the state ranking 13thnationally in egg production.
One statistic stands out above everything else and that is the economic impact of poultry production in Alabama. It’s $8.5 BILLION annually which is 10 percent of the state’s economy.
Auburn University’s Poultry Science display was on prominent view during the grand opening of the new facility.
AU leaders as well as other executives and officials familiar with the poultry industry were effusive in their praise of the new milling operation that had an open house on Nov. 16.
"The new Poultry and Animal Nutrition Center at Auburn is the result of a great partnership between the university and agribusiness," AU President Jay Gogue said.
Bill Batchelor, dean of the AU College of Agriculture, added his praise for the new facility, "The feed milling industry will be more essential than ever as the need for feeds that optimize poultry, livestock and fish production increase.
"In Alabama and globally, the agriculture sectors face daunting challenges in the future and as demands on our resources continue to soar, animal nutrition will become a huge global issue."
It’s for that reason $7.1 million has produced a building that may not look like much from the outside, but, indoors, looks a bit like something out of a science-fiction movie.
In this case, no fiction is involved. Science is and, from the machinery in place, it’s obvious Conner got just what he wished for when he spoke to the Cooperative Farming News two years ago, long before the first spade was turned at the site several miles north of the main AU campus.
For those unfamiliar with milling operations, Conner likes to compare it with baking a cake. That’s a lot easier to understand.
Twelve huge bins can hold tons of raw ingredients such as corn, soybeans, salt and calcium. Once they are introduced to the system, they are mixed "a lot like a cake" to make sure everything turns out just right.
Don Conner inspects the instrument panel used to operate Auburn University’s new $7.1 million poultry science facility.
"Those ingredients are mixed up, stirred and involved in manipulations that insure the prescribed diet for poultry," he explained. "That is the main purpose of much of our equipment."
What happens if that diet isn’t produced properly? Conner has an answer for that in a flash.
"Accuracy and precision are important," he said. "Leave salt out of the mix, for instance, and you might lose a whole flock of birds."
One look at all the expensive equipment surrounding those huge bins and it’s easy to see what he means, especially when he compares the facility with AU’s old mill.
"Let me put it this way," he said, "What we have here now is like a BMW with a high precision engine compared with a Model T Ford."
The new milling facility, about a tenth the size of huge operations in the heart of the north Alabama poultry industry, will only be producing feed for hands-on instructional purposes.
A multi-colored control panel keeps pace with the ingredients being fed into the bins and if there is a problem it will show up and operators can make proper adjustments.
The new plant was built "to scale" and will be able to produce about a million pounds of feed annually. That’s "chicken feed" when it comes to what the giant milling facilities can turn out each year.
"What we have here is a place where students can come and study, and then put their knowledge to work by using the equipment we’ve got," he said.
A large classroom, adjacent to the milling site, is next to a flat screen monitor and recognition of corporate sponsors who made the facility possible.
The mill was built in Minnesota in modular form much like a giant jigsaw puzzle and brought to Alabama on nine flatbed trailers. It didn’t take long to put the whole thing together and finishing touches have been added along the way.
The bottom line, he said, is having something on campus that answers an age-old question from those who wonder "Where does food come from?"
"Ask somebody and they’ll probably say it comes from a supermarket," he said. "People don’t consider food an essential part of our national infrastructure and it doesn’t rank very high in the list of issues in our country."
It’s for that reason alone Don Conner and his students will be putting the new instructional milling facility into operation to make sure the food we eat is safe.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.