Vinton Southern States receives coveted “2012 Feed Mill of the Year” award
VINTON–A sign on display at Southern States Cooperative’s Roanoke Feed Mill in Vinton says, “Through these doors pass the best feed makers in southwest Virginia.”
Apparently that is an understatement, as the facility has just been named “2012 Feed Mill of the Year” by the American Feed Industry Association and “Feedstuffs” magazine. The award covers all of North America, with over 100 mills in competition for the coveted honor.
Manager Dave Jones says that the credit for the award goes to the employees and their continuing efforts.
“We have a super group of people who love making feed and do it well,” said Jones. “They have a good work ethic and don’t mind working hard, working long, and in less than perfect conditions.”
Jones himself has been employed by Southern States for 39 years, the last 26 at the Vinton mill, although he grew up in Pittsburgh in a family of steel makers.
After spending a summer working in the hot, dangerous, and grimy steel mills, he decided on a different course, and chose a major in agricultural business at Penn State University. He had spent time working for three ladies in the area who operated a truck farm and discovered that he liked agriculture, especially since the field would offer job security as “there will always be a demand for food.”
When Jones graduated in 1973, he immediately went to work for Southern States.
Southern States Cooperative first formed in the early 1900’s as Virginia Seed Service, with the goal of providing certified seed to make farming more profitable. In 1925, they expanded their offerings to include manufactured feed. At the time, mixed and formula feeds were extremely expensive and quality was not the best.
Southern States revolutionized the feed industry when they instituted a policy to standardize formulas with specifications listed on a tag on each bag produced. Customers could then be assured of consistent quality with identifiable ingredients.
“Making feed is similar to your grandma making a cake only the bowl is bigger,” said Jones. “Grandma had a recipe; we use a formula and work in increments of 6,000 pounds where a ‘pinch’ equates to 1.5 pounds.”
“Animals, unlike humans, don’t like change in foods,” said Jones. “We want their feed to be identical each time.”
Jones applied for the 2012 Feed Mill of the Year award as a way to improve his operation, a fine-tuning process that has gone on for years while improvements in technology were made in the industry.
The Vinton Southern States was the first company in the world to institute use of the bar code reader in batching (mixing) feed, technology so new that it was beyond “leading edge technology.”
“It was ‘bleeding edge technology’ at the time,” said Jones.
Jones spent countless hours gathering data to apply for the award, answering hundreds of questions about the facility and it’s adherence to government OSHA and EPA regulations on cleanliness, recycling, air quality, and safety procedures in addition to the specifics of the feed being produced and the employees producing it.
The Vinton Southern States produces over 300 tons of animal feed each day and over 100,000 tons each year. They deliver to more than 60 retail stores and their 2200 bulk customers in an area that extends from Gate City on the west to Richmond on the east to Mt. Airy on the south to Keyser, West Virginia, in the north. Sixty percent of their production is bulk feeds and forty percent bagged feed.
The Vinton plant produces feed for dairy cattle (40% of their output), beef cattle, horses, hogs, chickens, rabbits, and even llamas. They do not produce pet foods, which require a different type of equipment, operating under a different set of regulations.
Their mill is inspected every two weeks by the Food and Drug Administration, who carefully monitor all animal feed suppliers, since what they produce eventually becomes part of the human food chain.
“The government does a very good job of keeping our food system safe,” said Jones. “Safe feed equals safe food.”
Their equipment is painted white so that any dust is immediately noticeable, although a tour through their plant reveals a dedication to cleanliness in all steps of the feed making process.
Recognizing the hazards of grain dust explosions and of engulfment in bins, feed mills are highly regulated to insure that safety procedures are followed. The Vinton plant follows OSHA policies religiously and currently has a record of over 437,000 man hours without time lost due to an accident.
“We want to make this a good place for people to work, knowing that conditions can be difficult,” said Jones. “As temperatures in our plant can reach over 100 degrees in summer, we were one of the first to allow employees to wear shorts and t-shirts for work.”
There is little turnover among the 34 workers at the local plant. Some families have several generations who have been employed at Southern States.
The Vinton Southern States on Walnut Avenue was established in 1935. In 1982 over $4 million was spent in expanding and improving the plant, including installation of the 180 foot tall grain elevator.
In the early days, workers unloaded wheat, barley, and corn by shovel from railway grain cars.
Increases in railway rates made that mode of transportation non- competitive. Now, two thirds of their raw materials arrive by rail and one third by truck. All outbound products from the plant are shipped via truck, which is more economical, especially in cases where a farmer may need only 3 tons of feed, not the 50 tons hauled by a railway car. Most of their trucks have six three-ton bins.
“We can carry six different kinds of feed to one farm, or six feeds to six farms,” said Jones.
While Jones calls Southern States Vinton’s “best kept secret”, the plant is also Vinton’s oldest business and one of its largest. The company makes notable contributions to the community, both financially and by being good neighbors in the Town.
Vinton is highly rated by the state of Virginia for its recycling efforts, and Southern States makes up a sizable portion of those recycled materials. They recycle used wooden and plastic pallets, aluminum cans, scrap metal, drive oil, and paper. Feeds are also reworked to reduce waste.
In addition, Jones serves his community as chairman of the Vinton Planning Commission, which enabled him to make a real difference in plans for the construction of the new bridge on Walnut Avenue.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) originally planned to close parts of the thoroughfare which would have rerouted numerous trucks each day through the residential Midway community and inconvenienced thousands of motorists who use Walnut Avenue. Jones encouraged public meetings to gather citizen input, which eventually resulted in revised plans for the new bridge to be built alongside the old one, allowing traffic flow to continue during construction.
Southern States Cooperative is located within the flood plain and was severely affected in the flood of 1985, when workers were forced to evacuate the plant. Flood waters reached a height of 17 feet inside the warehouse. Railroad cars loaded with tons of ingredients floated off of the nearby tracks.
Southern States had the determination to not only survive that catastrophe but to thrive and now to receive acclaim as the best feed mill on the continent.