Shell Rock ethanol plant uses new technology to make feed

Associated Press
A sample of finished product is seen at Flint Hills Resources in Shell Rock on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020.

SHELL ROCK, Iowa (AP) – A Shell Rock ethanol plant is one of the first in Iowa to use a Cedar Rapids-developed technology to make a high-protein animal feed ingredient.

Flint Hills Resources, a fuel and chemical company based in Wichita, Kan., expanded its Shell Rock plant, brought in new equipment — including an eight-story dryer — and hired more employees for the Maximized Stillage Co-products, or MSC, process.

That technology, developed by Fluid Quip Technologies of Cedar Rapids, extracts protein from the whole stillage that remains after ethanol processing and makes a 50 percent protein feed for pets, fish, dairy cows, poultry and swine.

"We're still consuming and generally buying the same amount of corn," said Mark Murphy, Flint Hills Resources general manager of global marketing and trading.

"We've really just repurposed the corn kernel. We're still producing the same amount of ethanol and feed, just in two different products."

A corn kernel is 60 percent to 65 percent starch. When corn arrives at an ethanol plant, it's ground into flour.

Water and enzymes are added, and the resulting mash is heated to break down the starch into sugar. Yeast consumes the sugar and creates alcohol, which is distilled and processed into fuel-grade ethanol.

But the Cedar Rapids Gazette reports there still is fiber, protein and fat left in the corn by-product, or stillage.

By spinning the stillage in a centrifuge, processors can get both high-fiber distillers grains to feed animals and distillers corn oil for biofuels and feed additives.

"What we've done, by putting this equipment in, we have reduced some of that distillers grain pile by about 25 percent," Murphy said.

With MSC, that one-quarter of stillage goes through an additional process to concentrate the protein left in the processed corn.

"There's no additives being put into it," Murphy said. "It's really a process similar to what wet mills have been doing on front end of their plants, but applying a similar context to the end process of a dry mill."

Flint Hills Resources has branded its high-protein feed as NexPro.

The global demand for meat has risen, along with income levels. China's imports of beef, pork and poultry went from 2.2 million tons in 2015 to 8.7 million tons in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed growth in global meat imports outside of China, but the USDA expects that to rebound slightly in 2021.

"COVID-19 has created some volatility in production animal markets over the last year," Murphy said. "Consumer buying habits have fluctuated and processing facilities have been impacted at times.

"However, we have seen growth in the use of NexPro during 2020 and we're encouraged by the feedback we continue to receive from our customers. We're preparing to meet our customers' growing needs for more of our product in 2021."

Flint Hills Resources installed MSC at its Fairmont, Neb., plant in 2018.

After determining there was demand for NexPro, the company expanded to Shell Rock, where MSC processing started in July.

Flint Hills purchases 200 million bushels of Iowa corn a year, with much of it coming from right around its production plants in Shell Rock, Fairbank, Iowa Falls, Arthur and Menlo.

"We try to source around our draw area and work directly with farmers to do so," Murphy said. "We also value the relationships we're able to make with them."

Some of the farmers who sell corn to Flint Hills also buy feed from the company, Murphy said.

The Flint Hills plant expansion has been good news for Shell Rock, a city of 1,280 in Butler County.

"To have a company that is involved in value-added agriculture make a significant investment here, that makes us confident they are here for the long term," said Jeff Kolb, executive director of the Butler-Grundy Development Alliance.

The plant is in the Butler Logistics Park, a rural industrial park served by the Iowa Northern Railway.

Shell Rock Soy Processing soon will open a $270 million soybean-crushing plant in the park.

"The rail infrastructure there is extremely important to attract projects like this," Kolb said. "They (Iowa Northern) can offer shipping opportunities most can't."