Making Sure We're Ready for You
Feb 13, 2019
Jesse Wiant: Thanks Stef. So today, like Stef said, we have Aaron Schwab on. Just basically wanted to touch a little bit about what UFC, does from an operational standpoint. So obviously, in today's ag industry, there's a need for things to get done faster, more efficient, to keep up with the bigger equipment and the demand of the growers that we work with. I recall when I was just a kid and when my grandfather upgraded from a six row corn planter to a 12 year old corn planter, and that was a big deal, and that was 20-22 years ago. There's not a lot of 12 rows around today, there's still some obviously but, we're just seeing more 16's, 24's, 36's in some cases, 48's in some cases. So obviously technologies what's helping these growers become larger, become more efficient and get that crop in the ground faster. I think as we know here in Minnesota we only have a 10 day window to really get that corn planted and we try to get everything done in that timeframe. So as technologies helped growers grow, it's also helped UFC grow from an operational standpoint. Again, Aaron Schwab is here with us today. So Aaron, maybe just give us a little bit of a rundown of your job duties and maybe how long have you been with UFC?
Aaron Schwab: Okay, well I started with UFC in the summer of 2000 back in the Lafayette days. I worked in Lafayette for a number of years as a custom applicator, did some bin crew construction. Then when we moved to Winthrop up here in 2008, 2009, I was transferred to Winthrop and got out of the custom application and a little more into the dispatch and operations side of UFC agronomy. Just recently here in spring of 2017 ,I moved up to the Brownton agronomy center up in Brownton, Minnesota. My job now is operations on the north side. I oversee dry and liquid operations here at UFC on the northern division, which stretches from the West, from Hector through Brownton, over to Hamburg and up through Waconia. I worked with another gentlemen, by the name of Chad Wilson. He is our southern agronomy operations manager. Him and I worked together to ensure that we've got adequate equipment on both side and that things are ready to go. In season, we're working together to make sure everything's getting covered. We covered a big territory so sometimes we're working north and south, or all in the South or all in the North. It's gets the big picture together.
Jesse Wiant: So you know you speak on the northern and there's a southern tier, right? So roughly how many people are in that northern tier that you kind of oversee?
Aaron Schwab: UFC agronomy, in season, employs close to a hundred people. Those are full time and part time. It's split pretty well, half and half, give or take a few between the part-timers and the full-time people. This time of year we're running 30 people at the most and then in season, through the summer months, we can be pushing a hundred people that are working for UFC agronomy.
Jesse Wiant: So that's obviously one thing I've noticed too, in my five years here at UFC is the number of people that we find. It just intrigues me every year how we were able to find the seasonal help to help get the jobs done. Like you say through the winter months obviously it's a lot slower, but yet there's still a lot to do. Correct?
Aaron Schwab: Yep. So we have nearly 90 pieces of equipment that need to be run through the shop. A lot of those require annual DOT inspection; trucks, trailers, pickups, anything that goes down the road that's licensed, has got to have a DOT inspection and we do most of that in house, pretty much all of it, if time allows and the people allow. We have some our own inspectors that are agronomy employees that do our DOT inspections. So they're cross trained. A lot of our seasonal help are UFC workers. We rely on them in the spring time. We get a few guys from the grain department to help us, a few guys from the petroleum department to kind of help us in the summertime. It's kind of a good deal for us at UFC, we're able to keep UFC employees working throughout the year.
Jesse Wiant: Right, right. So you talked about 90 different pieces of equipment or roughly, right? So maybe touch on what you mean by equipment and what all does it encompass?
Aaron Schwab: So most of our equipment in agronomy, we have the big Terragators; we're running a fleet of 20 of those. We have mostly yellow ones, there's some red ones in the fleet, and then there's a few green ones left in the fleet too. We're running 16 self-propelled sprayers. Most of them are Case IH, we have some John Deere and some Miller highboy front boom In our fleet also. We have a pull type sprayer at our Hector location, a top air, that we do a lot of spraying for sugar beets and corn, soybeans also. We're running custom application anhydrous, usually running 8 to 10 tractors depending on the year. We got chisel plows toolbars available. We have toolbars that farmers can use, they can pull our toolbars we have those at some locations. Also Pull type spreaders for spreading fertilizer.
Jesse Wiant: So Schwab, you've been in the operational side of the ag business for many years now. Are you starting to see a trend maybe going away from, say the pull type spreaders, to more custom applications or maybe even more variable rate spreading?
Aaron Schwab: Yup, when I started here, we had I think one VRT machine and now we're running excess, 13 or 14 of those machines capable of doing variable rate. Like I said, technology's improved from the spinner spreaders, worried about getting an even spread, the wind, the different rates. The air machines that we have today do an excellent job from the spread pattern to variable rating. We have the four bin soil election machines, we have a number of those. We can lay down multiple products in one pass. Also most of them have the newer monitors, the raven vipers. So we're able to track as-applied maps and are able to do prescriptions. I know I've worked with Jessie here, he's done some, maybe we're blending these two products and variable rating them and we're flat rating this product with the pre-emerge on. There's so many combinations that we can do with the air machine that you can't do with the pull type spreader. And it allows us to be efficient too. We're spreading 70 feet at 15 miles an hour versus a pull type spreader that it takes the man power plus they get plus the machine to tractor and we're able to allow that farmer to plant corn and we can have that field spread for him.
Jesse Wiant: So you talk about what it takes to keep up with this larger equipment. You brought up the point of 70 foot booms and when the air flow machine first came out, what was the boom width then?
Aaron Schwab: Yeah, so the old air maxes, the old air machines a lot of them were 60 feet. We moved up to 70 feet. They've added a couple of hundred horse power to the machines. More comfort options like the auto steer, it was a big deal. I think us at UFC, we had our first auto steer equipment drive floater in I think 2008. And now I think most of them, except for a few of the old ones, are auto steer equipped. That has really made a big difference of having an accurate application, you're not following the foam. The wind blew the foam in our application days.
Jesse Wiant: Or the field cultivator covers it up before you get back
Aaron Schwab: Yup, The application as applied maps, the guys could see that their maps on their screens as they're applying to fields; It's coloring it in or taking the color off. It's ensuring that if you miss a foot it shows up on their screen. So it's ensuring that we have good coverage.
Jesse Wiant: I think that's something important to keep in mind as well. We talked about the growers that we were working with, their equipment's getting bigger. Our floater booms aren't, so when you said maybe there's 13 to 14 just VRT machines that UFC is running, that's why we have to have so many machines because the planters have doubled or even tripled in size. So the acres they can cover in a day are much greater than even 10 years ago. So from our standpoint, having the machinery and being able to utilize different departments to help bring employees around to get the job done is definitely key. You brought up the technology standpoint, right? You look at these viper monitors, you look at being able to variable rate products and to have those as-applied maps so we can ensure with that grower that here's what you wanted us to do, this is the prescription we made and here's the, as applied to basically have that grower trusts that we're doing what we said we were going to do. So it's kind of cool to see how technology's changed from the first VRT using the falcon system, going to now the viper where it's more interactive with the mapping component that we can get. It's, it's really neat to see that.
Aaron Schwab: Yeah. Like I said, guys planted with six rows when I started here. We probably never went more than 15 miles out of Lafayette, 15-20 miles around Lafayette and Norseland area. Now we're running 50-60 miles in either direction. We started with a fleet of semi's. We can touched on that a little bit, we've got like 28 or 29 semi fertilizer trailers that allow us to haul, a lot of times we can get a job or two on a load or if it's a big field, we can get it in two loads or three loads. It's allowed us to be more efficient. With the top Auger trailers, we're able to fill our VRT machines in half the time. We could switch from one product in the trailer to the next in no time and move the augur and we can be filled up and back in the field in no time.
Jesse Wiant: I think that's something too that we didn't mention earlier, but like you say though, just the trailers alone, right? So in my previous career, the largest truck we had, I think, was like an 18 ton. And when you're only hauling 18 ton, it's usually one job. So being able to haul 24 ton and be able to maybe get two jobs on one truck is huge. From an efficiency standpoint.
Aaron Schwab: All the trailers, well most of them, are the same. We have some split bins, so if we're hauling a micronutrient, we're not wasting a big bin on one ton of elemental sulfur or a zinc product. We're able to, like I said, load multiple jobs on a truck sometimes and head down the road.
Jesse Wiant: So as long as we're talking about fertilizer, dry in this case, where are UFC is a key locations from a dry fertilizer standpoint?
Aaron Schwab: So UFC's on two hub system, we have one in the northern hub, which is in Brownton at the intersection of State 15 and US 212. Our southern hub facility is in Winthrop, Minnesota here along highway 19 east in Winthrop, next to the ethanol plant. We run the two north and south plants, the one in Winthrop is 38,000 ton plant and our one up in Brownton is a 53,000 ton plant. They both have HIM mixers available or we use him mixers at both.
Jesse Wiant: So I guess, being that me and you are both in the northern team, obviously we're familiar with what's in Brownton, but maybe for some of the listeners who are more familiar with the southern aspect of UFC, maybe touch a little bit on how Brownton is different than our Winthrop location. Obviously you said size wise, but is there anything different there that we've implemented from maybe a technology standpoint to again, speed things up?
Aaron Schwab: So our Brownton facilities receiving’s we can unload a little faster than Winthrop. The biggest thing about Brownton, is we're open year round. We have fertilizer coming and going year round and we have a wholesale business. We wholesale fertilizer for two different companies out of our plant. So we always have the ability to move product, which Winthrop does too, but like I said, in the wintertime, there's not much spreading going on. There's some receiving, we receive a lot of product in, in the off season.
Jesse Wiant: So you said in Winthrop and Brownton there's a HIM mixer. For those that don't know what a HIM mixer is, could you touch on that versus like a vertical mixer?
Aaron Schwab: So a HIM mixers is relatively new to the market here. Probably in 2013-2014, Sackett came out with HIM blender, which is a dual shaft paddle mixer. They're a lot smaller than our traditional here in Winthrop, we have one HIM mixer and then we also have the two original 12 ton vertical mixers. The 12 ton vertical mixers are very similar to a feed mill that you would have on a farm. The old feed mills with the Auger up the center that mix at the cone on the bottom, they call them a vertical mixer. So the industry went to those after the horizontal ones, the eight ton horizontal ones that I think every little town has sticking out of their fertilizer plant towers. We went to the 12 ton, they make up to an 18 ton vertical mixer and then Sackett came along with these HIM mixers and basically they're a duel shaft paddles. They stirred up in the middle and they take it around in a circle. What's nice about them is they do a good job of mixing in a short period of time. So, we're only mixing 4 ton at a time, but we can do 4 ton in 30 seconds verses to do an 18 ton batch with the vertical it takes some time to weigh that 18 ton up and then it all has to flow into the mixer and, where the HIM really shines is in impregnation. If we're putting a nitrogen stabilizer, we're putting a herbicide on there for pre-emerge chemical, it does a great job with that. With the old verticals you can only pump so many gallons a minute into that mixer otherwise you get a big glob in the middle. And then once it's all pumped, we're taking 5-8 minutes of mixed time. Where the HIM, we can have that good blend in 30 seconds. I think we can get by with 20, but we stick with 30 seconds. And then that HIM mixer has those bomb bay doors on the bottom, so when that 30 seconds is up, it opens, it dumps in a matter of seconds and in the next batch is ready to dump. So along with our HIM blender up above it, we have multiple scale hoppers. So at our Brownton facility, we're weighing three products at one time; we can weigh a micro, we can weigh, say, nitrogen or urea, and we can weigh P and K all at the same time. So along with the smaller batches, we're running two pound increments on our scales and one pound under micro scales; where the bigger 18 ton scales they were running 10-20 pound scale breaks.
Jesse Wiant: So from an accuracy standpoint with what we have in Brockton, it's a lot more accurate. Instead of tipping the bucket on the bobcat or payloader a little more to get your scale to where it should be.
Aaron Schwab: Yeah at both plants we're running the same automation system, the Kahler automation out of Fairmont, Minnesota. They're pretty well known in the automation world and they've got these Waconia Sackett blenders and scale hoppers dialed in. If you want that many pounds, it gets it to a tee with without bumping the bin. It takes time to bump the bin. They dialed themselves, then it's kind of fully automatic.
Stefanie W: How fast can you get through?
Aaron Schwab: So up at our Brownton facility. If we're doing an impregnation chemical, we can load a 24 ton load in five to seven minutes if everything's set up right, if we're moving right along, we've got the next batch going. We could load both plants. You can load a truck in under 10 minutes of impregnated fertilizer.
Jesse Wiant: That's pretty quick. I mean, versus a vertical blender 10 years ago or five years ago even.
Aaron Schwab: Yeah, 10 years ago, the old Lafayette days, if we were loading a semi it was probably closer to 20 minutes to 25 minutes to load. Also our tower capacities are a lot bigger. We can load a number of trucks without running out of a product in a bin and are able to fill the tower at a rapid pace. At our Brownton facility, we're running a big pay loader up there and he can scoop, nearly, 8,000 - 9,000 pounds of potash in one scoop. Our system that fills the place, fills it at 350 ton an hour. So when that bucket's dumped in the pit, it's up in the tower before he gets back in the bin again. So it's speed and that allows us to run one loader operator up in Brownton and he can scoop that. We've had some had a 5,000 ton day and it's a long day, but you can do it with one loader and it keeps up
Jesse Wiant: Two things I guess I would add, one on the HIM blender. It's kinda neat where that originated, right? So obviously scale wise, it was a lot smaller, but that blender idea originated from the pharmaceutical market. So when you think about, whoever the company is blending two different active ingredients into a pill form, they have to get the ratios, right. So if you don't get things mixed up and you get, instead of a 50-50 blend, you're getting a 25-75 blend the two active ingredients, it could really mess up somebody's health schedule or pill schedule. So from that aspect, that's where it originated. We've put a video on UFC website of the blender, an open, so you can see the paddles actually working and one of the unique things that they do in that video, was actually put its corn flakes and something else, and I can't remember what they add to it, but it's such a gentle blend. I mean you think of cornflakes, any kind of agitation and those things should be breaking apart and you should have corn dust, right? And when they run the blender and add in whatever they're adding in, there's no broken particles. And that's one thing about the HIM blender that I really think is unique from the standpoint of impregnation, you're getting coating. I mean everything's going to get coated evenly versus having to rely on maybe a five minute blend cycle in a vertical blender.
Aaron Schwab: So like you said time is crucial when these 36 row and 24 row planters are going, to be able to allow that proper blend time. Five minutes is too long when the trucks are sitting and the floaters are waiting. We need to load them trucks, so 30 seconds and we get a much better blend. I've noticed it over the years, once we switched here in 2016, the Spring in Winthrop to our first HIM and then Brownton's too, we've had a lot less issues with, especially, the instinct in the fall. It blends a lot better, it used to require some 10 minute blend times on our old vertical mixers. To get that instinct blended good with the urea, having problems with it holding up into trucks and sticking in the heads of the floaters and that's really improved our quality of fertilizer by installing these HIM mixers.
Jesse Wiant: The second thing I would add, if a grower is wanting to learn more or to actually take a tour of one of the sites, whether it is Brownton or a Winthrop, obviously you can't see inside the HIM blender at these sites, but just to see how things are actually set up. Just get in contact with your field sales agronomist and reach out to them. This time of the year is a great time for that kind of thing because it is slow. There's maybe some, like you say Aaron, some wholesale product going out, but it's relatively slow that if somebody would like to tour the plant, it's pretty darn impressive.
Aaron Schwab: Yeah. Like Jesse said, if anyone wants to come up, see the tower will take you up in the tower. There's a staircase that goes up there. We're happy to show you the plant and just like I said, get in touch with your agronomist and they'll get touch with Roger T up in Brownton or myself and we'll get you through there and let you take a look at it. So one other thing with our Brownton facility too, is our state of the art liquid facility that we have right next to the fertilizer plant. So we're running the Kahler automation system there also, we're able to load out 32%, 28%, 10-34-0, 7-23-5. Along with other liquids.
Jesse Wiant: So we talked about having this new liquid facility, what about being able to pick up a product? If a grower wants to pick up their own product, maybe just touch on that a little bit.
Aaron Schwab: So at our Brownton liquid facility, we have three load out lanes. We have two that are inside and then the one is a separate drive through lane, we call it our 24 hour bay. It can be used during business hours and it also can be used it all times of the day; 24 hours a day, load out light. So if you're planting corn and you need a refill of 10-34-0 or you're spraying 28% or even water, you can get that 24 hours a day in Brownton in season.
Jesse Wiant: So what about if you're in that 24 hour load out as there the ability to blend products.
Aaron Schwab: Yup. So if you're putting in a zinc or another micronutrient in your 10-34-0, we could set you up that you could show up at night, you clock in or punch in your number, your load number, and that'll you in, to open the door. Your load number and your driver ID will get you inside the place or inside the bay. Once you're in the bay, you can pick what, or how many gallons you want, and then we have top or bottom fill. If you're loading over to top into a tanker, there's top fill. If you're loading on the bottom, there's a hose to hook up and then you have to push the OK button and it'll fill your truck up. The emergency stops at both those stations. If there's an accident and after it's done loading and it'll print you out a receipt and then you can, you can move on and the doors open and let you out. It's kind of a neat feature if you're spraying too. If you want water with Class Act, Interlock, or any of those adjuvants injected into the water that can also be loaded in this bay 24 hours a day. You'll just need to stop by before and we'll get you set up with the driver id number and your order number you can get from your agronomist and you can pick up anytime. Along with our 24 hour bay we can load you inside during the day. We're able to blend products, able to do a hot load, multiple, I think 23 different products, we can inject into the outstream, the hose going out. So if you want like I said, 28%, 32%, and you want to add something to any of those that we have in stock, some micronutrients. It's also for spraying, it's become a big thing we've been doing here at our custom fleets or custom rigs for a number of years is hot loading the class act and interlock. We also do that down Chad and stand down here in Winthrop facility, do a lot of that, of interlock and, and class act. It eliminates to have an extra shuttle, the extra product on the truck and another mixing. That way that water's treated, it's conditioned and it's in the tank, it's ready to go for spraying.
Jesse Wiant: So, I mean, that's a key thing from an agronomic standpoint, right? When we talk about like a class act product, we're using that for a water conditioner. I would say probably 75% of the time, when that's in a tank on the trailer, it doesn't have the adequate time in that spray tanks to condition that water. It does work fast, but there is some time needed. So anytime we can hot load it, like what you're talking about Aaron and have that actually run its course and actually do what it's supposed to do, I think it also can increase our weed control from that standpoint, Agronomically speaking. To touch on. Minnesota's got different nitrogen rules and I think as things progress here in the next few years, we're going to see them tightened down even more on this. One thing that's becoming a bigger player in our area is split applying nitrogen. So what is UFC doing to help growers be able to split apply their nitrogen?
Aaron Schwab: Well, we have a couple of different things going. We have pull type spreaders that are available with the different row widths, some narrow tires for the guys with 22's or even 30's. There's a lot of people that do that, that throw another few pounds of Nitrogen out there right when the corn spiking. We also have a John Deere spinner spreader that we use to service our territory that's available. We do an 80 foot spread with that that works the best. We've got to calibrate it in and we have put the narrow tires on it. That machine has floats that we use it for in the springtime, but in the summertime we put the narrow tires on it. We've done some, like I said, split-applying nitrogen. We've done some other products with it throughout the years.
Jesse Wiant: Sure, sure. And like I said, I think that's something, as we progressed here the next few years that I think is inevitable that we someday will be mandated or there'll be tighter regulations at least of how and when we apply our nitrogen. So, that's obviously one step that we've taken to help growers split apply nitrogen from a dry fertilizer standpoint, especially.
Aaron Schwab: And we've worked with growers that have their own spreaders or own liquid rigs. We have some trucks available in the summertime too if they're doing a bunch we can leave them trailer or they can rent a trailer from us. Those type of situations we can work through, just contact your agronomist and they'll get in contact with us and we can work through different scenarios.
Jesse Wiant: I guess, just to kind of finish it off, right? So we went through a lot of different things. People, machinery, territory that we cover, number of pieces of machinery,, and then basically two hubs sites. How do you manage this from here's an order, Aaron, to get it done. What's your process I guess, or what tools are you using to get everything done?
Aaron Schwab: So that's greatly improved over the last few years. The old way of doing it was, Jesse would get an order from his customer and they'd have to print it off, first connect to find Internet connection when Internet was starting, and get it printed off and physically get it to the fertilizer plant so that we can apply it with the proper my maps. So now we started last year using a program called AgVantage Agronomy Edge program. So what that is it's an iPad, app based, system that all our applicators all have an iPad and they get their instructions through their iPad. There's no more calling or stopping by the plant to get their pile of paperwork for today. It's all paperless. They have the map, they get turn by turn directions to the customer's field. So it all starts with the salesman, Jesse and his team, they can meet with a grower out at their farm or even out in the field. You can physically stand in the field and make that ticket from anywhere that you have phone signal and that automatically goes to the plant. When it's a go, we see it on our dispatch screen. So our dispatch screen can be filtered out many different ways that we can see the whole picture. We can just see Winthrop's picture, we can just see Brownton's picture, and we could put them both together. And that's kind of what Chad and I do is put both screens together and see what's available. That really aligned between the north and south. If we're not busy up that way we can come down towards south and grab some. We could see the jobs that are on the screen, there's a lot of transparency so everybody knows what's going on. If there's job, say three miles north of Winthrop and the Brownton team can come down and hit that one, the technology's the same. The way at inputs into our mixing system, the way it bills, the applicators, they didn't want to know what plant it's even coming from. Everything's the same.
Jesse Wiant: So, like you say, from my standpoint or the agronomist standpoint being able to make that ticket right then and there, maybe it's in the field or in the approach or something, right? It ensures two things really. It ensures that the tickets gets made timely and that it actually gets to where it needs to go versus, well, I've got to print it off, well now I've got to decide, okay, maybe it's in that fringe area of kind of north south, that imaginary line, well, who do I send it to? Do I send that to Brownton or do I send it to Winthrop? Edge has really gotten us away from the discrepancy there. Now, it's on the system and then you or Chad, as the operational manager, make that decision for the agronomists. So now the agronomist is basically completely out of the dispatching, which is great from my standpoint. The other nice thing about edge is the notifications. So when that field gets completed, whether it's a spray job, a fertilizer job, or an anhydrous job, a notification can be sent to the grower and, or the salesperson basically saying the field name, the acres, the completion time. That grower knows exactly when those fields get done, instead of having to make that phone call back to, whether it's me or another agronomist, and ask did you get the home 40 done? Now they know. So it saves in the springtime when your phone's ringing off the hook anyways, this at least saves that one extra phone call or maybe that one extra text where they'll get that notification automatically and it just saves that step.
Stefanie W: How do to growers get that notification?
Jesse Wiant: So the easiest way to get the notifications, or to quote unquote, sign up for the notifications, is to just talk to your agronomist. They can come via text or email. So if you're savvy with the email on your phone, you can have it that way. The email notification gives you just a little bit more information than the text notifications. So the text notification basically gives you the acres, the field name and that is complete. The email notification I think it gives you maybe the product's, rates,...
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