No doubt about it, a feed mill begins deteriorating the moment you start it. But there are ways you can prolong its usefulness and, in a sense, make it last forever.

"A mill is like an airplane," says Fred Fairchild, associate professor in Kansas State University's Department of Grain Science and Industry. "There's a lot you can do to keep it in good working order. You'll replace parts along the way but, if taken care of, a lot of the material will last indefinitely."

A preventive maintenance plan that starts the minute the mill is completed is the best assurance for longevity and return on investment. Fairchild says regularly checking and servicing equipment on a scheduled basis is far more cost effective than fixing equipment in a crisis situation.

"For every $1 of preventive maintenance, you'll save $5 in repair expenses," he adds. "Another advantage to a preventive maintenance program is that mill operators can more easily determine which parts are working well and which aren't. Using maintenance records and input records, the crew can quickly determine what's causing a problem and what's needed to repair it."

Jeff Sternberger, manager of Midwest Feeders, Ingalls, KS, echoes Fairchild's recommendations. And he's seen the process work on both old and newer equipment.

Midwest crews operate two mills - a flaking system serving one yard on the west side of the road, and a newer one on the east side. Sternberger bought the original west yard in 1992, including a roller mill. As the yard neared a capacity of 12,000 head, he added a flaking system to accommodate the capacity that grew to 20,000 head. When the yard expanded to the east, the original setup was duplicated with a few modifications to accommodate the extra 15,000-head capacity.

"There's a lower initial investment, plus operating costs are lower on a flaking system compared to some high-tech batching mills," Sternberger says. "We wanted reliability, simplicity and high-quality feed. Both of our mills are very user-friendly."

Besides ease of operation, the mills at Midwest offer relatively easy maintenance procedures.

Doug Althouse, assistant yard manager and feed foreman, says a common-sense maintenance approach keeps equipment running smoothly.

"Everything is greased according to recommended schedules," Althouse says. "Plus, we have daily visual checks on items such as belts, rollers and the like. The feed reports tell us quickly if something needs adjusting. Once starch availability on a dry matter basis gets away from the 70 range, we start tweaking the system.

"Our parts inventory is rather large," he says. "We pick items that eventually break or wear out and keep them on hand. This includes motors, other large parts, bearings, belts and so on. This lets us repair the mill on the spot and keep working."

Keep Track Each of Althouse's procedures falls in line with expert recommendations. K-State's Fairchild says developing a systematic process to track maintenance activity lets you expense and determine which pieces of equipment are costing more than necessary.

While each feedyard operates differently, Fairchild points out several items that make documenting maintenance easy and provides a quick overview for anyone checking records.

First, a basic equipment identification list is the foundation of a solid maintenance program. Each piece of equipment should be identified in some manner, whether by number, cost center, location or otherwise. Second, a master list showing each ID number and the related piece of equipment should be compiled as well.

Third, he recommends an equipment list that details key parts data, sizes and parts suppliers. This can be supplemented with a supplier sheet listing all feed mill related suppliers and how to contact them during regular business hours and off-hours.

Finally, keep maintenance schedules on each item. Some forms list types of procedures done, when and by whom. See Figure 1 for an example. A simple maintenance calendar can be compiled as well, showing specific dates to perform maintenance tasks.

Safety First Maintenance, however, isn't much good unless equipment is operated safely. Safety considerations were a primary reason Sternberger modified the design of the second mill installation.

"The arrangement of our older mill requires unloading grain trucks to cross the path of feed trucks," Sternberger says. "Odds were that, sooner or later, a collision with another vehicle was going to happen. Our new mill is situated so that moving vehicles don't have that challenge."

The attention to safety detail is evident from bottom to top. A series of strict rules include hearing protection, an employee is not allowed in a bin alone, nor can an employee climb a ladder without another person present. Similar, common-sense standards hold true for employees throughout the feedyard.

Safety Standards Common sense is the greatest contributing factor to safety, but there are basic standards that should be followed. Jack Haning, a compliance officer with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Lubbock, TX, says the agency will help explain safety guidelines.

"Most feedyards try to do the right things when it comes to safety," he says. "But, they may not use all the resources available to them. Feedyards are welcome to come to us for information - anonymously if they want. Our goal is to reduce fatalities and disabling injuries."

Helping employers understand standards is part of OSHA's compliance assistance activities, independent of enforcement inspections. Its staff will explain standards related to electrical wiring, personal protective equipment, dust control and other items during remodeling and new construction. Photos for OSHA staff are particularly helpful when questions arise about projects. Haning says feedyard owners should bring photos or even video to help them determine the best method of completion based on current regulations.

"We enjoy good working relationships with other Texas agencies such as the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Occupational Safety and Health Consultation branch of the Texas Workers Compensation system," Haning says. "Information about individual yards isn't shared between agencies, but we do work together to develop informational programs when requested."

Feed mills fall under OSHA section 29cfr1910.272 which covers grain handling. Other standards are applicable as well, depending upon each situation. An OSHA office can provide interpretation of the guidelines or you can get a copy from its Web site at www.osha.gov.

K-State's Fairchild stresses that safety is an attitude that has to exist in the CEO through to the entry-level worker. Althouse agrees: "It's a matter of common sense, a few ground rules and daily use of both."