BY ADAM FAHRENHOLZ, WILMER PACHECO AND CHARLES STARK
Once animal feed or pet food has been manufactured, it must somehow leave the facility. In the vast majority of cases, this happens either in bags or in bulk on delivery trucks. Either way, there are processing, quality, regulatory and marketing concerns that must be taken into consideration. This month we’ll cover bagging (sorry integrators) and next month the loadout process.
When we talk about bagged products, we typically think of the fifty-pound bags shipped to a retail location. However, there are certainly other sizes as well. From two-pound bags of gerbil food to twenty-five-kilogram bags for the metric minded, a whole range of package sizes exist. There are also multiple types of bagging systems, ranging from manual operation to completely automated, but, for the most part, the concerns related to the packaging process are similar.
From a process standpoint, it is very important that the equipment is properly sized and maintained. Systems may not be designed to keep up with the max output of the grinding, batching and mixing, and pelleting centers, so a degree of balancing among multiple product bins and runs of bulk feed is often necessary. Even so, a breakdown in this area can create a backlog in production quite quickly. In addition to standard maintenance considerations (e.g. oiling, greasing, tensioning of belts, inspection of compressed air lines, etc.) attention should be paid to packaging-specific areas such as the proper set up of the bagging scale (e.g. tare weight, fill speed, cut-off, and free fall set points) and the sewing or sealing equipment (e.g. string and/or tape feeding, position and operation of bag sensors, air pressure for pneumatically operated equipment, and needle or heat sealing equipment condition). Keep in mind that, similar to the way we look at efficiency in the batching/mixing cycle, seconds lost in this process can really add up. A facility should also ensure that whatever method is being used to print lot numbers is operating correctly (ever had to guess whether that number was a 3 or an 8?).
Bagging can absolutely have an impact on quality during storage and shipment related to items such as product stability, logistics, and the prevention of spills. There are number of bag closure options, including string sealed with or without tape, heat sealed, and glued. Each of these may be used in different applications depending on product disposition (e.g. whether it goes to another facility or directly to a customer), feed or food type, and cost. There are also different bag materials, including popular options such as multi‐wall paper bags with or without a polypropylene layer and woven polypropylene bags. Again, the same considerations go into choosing which bag type is best. From a quality perspective, the choices will impact the likelihood of a bag leaking material, how resistant the bag is to tearing, and how the product or even the bag itself reacts to environmental conditions during storage.
While more automated systems improve efficiencies and allow the facility to place workers in other areas, they must still be monitored to ensure that bags are properly closed and palletized. Improper closing can lead to failures during shipment, spilling material and making a mess. Similarly, improper or inconsistent palletizing can lead to stacks of bags being too tall or too wide, which makes them more likely to get ripped as they are moved around. Keep in mind that, depending on the particular type of animal food and how it will be handled by the consumer, potential exposure to environmental hazards could be considered a food safety issue.
Logistically, warehousing is always an important consideration. For quality purposes, ensuring that packaged feed or food moves in a first‐in, first‐out order will keep the product fresh. Labeling is obviously important, but so is overall organization to make products easier to find, load, and ship as needed. The higher volume products should be closest to the packaging and loading processes to minimize movement and time in the warehouse. Shrink wrapping and the use of clean slip sheets on the pallets are also good ideas. The shrink wrap prevents bags from shifting during transport and may also keep product from spilling if a bag does fail, and the slip sheets protect the bottom bags from being damaged by forklift forks or broken pallets. Slip sheets may also be used on top to protect the bags when pallets are double stacked.
From a regulatory perspective, proper labeling is the most important consideration for packaged animal feed. In some form or fashion, products must be identified with all the information required by state and/or federal regulations, such as product name, feeding directions, ingredient statements, guaranteed analyses, medication statements if applicable, net weight, and distributor information. Facilities have a couple of different options here. They may choose to have a single bag type and design with printed tags affixed during sealing. This is typically a good option for smaller facilities and/or those who do a lot of custom feed manufacturing. Another benefit of this method is that it is relatively easy to change the tags when necessary and it can be simpler to stamp lot numbers on tags than on the bags themselves. The other option is to use pre-printed bags for each product. This is an excellent choice for branding and even helps with warehousing as products can be much more quickly identified. The potential downside is having to manage bag inventory when a label change becomes necessary. Another regulatory consideration is that bag weights must match the label. This ties back into ensuring the bagging system is properly set-up and that the scales are accurate and certified.
A lot of the marketing aspect of bagged products has to do with the appearance of the product on the shelf. Certainly, this is mostly impacted by the quality of the bag material and the printing on the tag and/or bag. But in some cases, where bagged feed is delivered directly to the customer or is picked up by the customer from the feed mill, there are additional considerations. It is important that pallets are in good condition. Pallets may have been clean and in good repair when the bags were stacked, but broken bags, water on the floor or rough handling could lead to the pallets being dirty, wet, or damaged by the time they are unloaded. Additionally, due to biosecurity concerns, some customers or farms may also only want to receive feed stacked on new pallets that they can be sure weren’t previously on another farm. This is an expense that can be factored into the cost of the feed, and there may be good options for recycling the used pallets into another industry. Another option is to move towards reusable plastic pallets that can be thoroughly washed and disinfected between uses. This is expensive, but forward thinking.