Birding Business Tours a Bird Food Packaging Plant

Birding Business Tours a Bird Food Packaging Plant
Drafty barns are out — state of the art is in

image that often comes to mind is one of a big old barn with cobwebs and pigeons in the rafters, full of dust, dirt, chaff, insects and wind whistling through the cracks in the walls.  That image may be further reinforced when it is linked to a street-front feed store in small town USA that first opened for business in the nineteenth century.

Well that was then, this is now. The barns and cobwebs are gone, replaced by a state of the art facility with 300 employees and a commitment to leadership in the industry.

Chilton, Wisconsin may not be the epicenter of the birding/nature products world, but there is a company, formerly known as Knauf and Tesch, headquartered in that city since 1881, that has been a trail-blazer in this industry for more than a century. Re-named Kaytee Products, now a division of publicly-traded Central Garden and Pet, the company was an active producer of pet and wild bird food for decades before the commodity became an everyday packaged consumer item for backyard bird feeding. With facilities also in Rialto, Cal. and Cressona, Penn., Kaytee now has the flexibility and resources for nationwide distribution.

A true pioneer, Kaytee has been at the forefront of almost every new innovation in food mixes and packaging techniques since its founding, and continues to explore new avenues searching for the answers to tomorrow’s questions.

One of the means employed in that quest is an independent consultant, Mario Olmos, a field ornithologist and researcher. Mario specializes in birds’ foraging behavior and color perception as part of his studies in avian neuro-biology. His job for Kaytee and the Avian Foundation is to probe the depths of wild birds’ psyches to determine which senses, habits, characteristics and thought processes come into play when they choose the food they eat, where they’re most likely to look for that food in every season of the year and every region of the country, and the effect that food has on the birds’ health and breeding success. The answers to those questions ultimately may be used to create new formulations of seed mixes, perhaps with differences in the mix depending on the season or region.  

There have been few studies by this industry to gather data on nutrition in bird food. So far, most of the information we have has been taken from the study of cage birds which, though similar to our wild birds, do not have the same nutritional needs.  Cage birds have no predators, are fed on a schedule, and usually offered the same food every day. Wild birds, on the other hand, must forage daily and take whatever they can get. One thing we do know, though, is that young birds cannot digest whole peanuts or sunflower, so the parents feed them insects until they are old enough to look after themselves. We know, too, that urban-nesting birds are generally not as successful breeding as those in the wild, but we don’t know how much of that is due to the food they eat. Something else we’ve learned is that packaged bird food is safer for birds than food stored in bins. But we still have a lot of learning to do.

In the meantime, Kaytee is moving ahead on other fronts, updating their packaging with a fresh new design to offer clarity in the category and a more uniform brand identity. And they’ve introduced new packaging techniques to help retailers achieve a longer shelf life with packaged bird food. CO2 is injected into the poly bags to preserve quality and to resist and control insect infestation. The company is also the first to offer barrier packaging, an air-tight vacuum-formed package used in their recently re-introduced treat bell. More technical and health information has been added to the bags, too, because the consumer has become more in tune with safety in everything they use, and read the product labels more thoroughly.  This in turn means the whole industry will have to be able to validate their claims to the consumer.

We all live downstream

Leadership means to lead, and this company is seriously concerned with the environment in which we live and the impact of their product and processes on our world. Their raw ingredients come to them both in bulk shipment in hopper trucks as well as in huge bags in truck loads or train cars. Those big bags are made of woven plastic and can hold 2,000 pounds of sunflower chips. After those chips are poured into hoppers for packaging the bags are then recycled… ground up and returned to the manufacturer to be made into new bags. They do the same with cardboard, and even the fines in the seed. Cracked corn, for example, can have as much as 25 to 30 percent fines after the first cleaning, so those fines are sent back through the cleaning process until what’s left is unsuitable as bird food and is then used in the company’s extrusion process.

Safety in every operation is also a prime concern, especially in food products to be consumed, so every load of seed that comes through the door is tested for aflatoxins. In addition there are frequent quality control audits to ensure that everything that goes out the door is completely safe. Once it gets into the consumer’s hands, mind you, it is out of the company’s control and illness can be caused inadvertently by the homeowner simply not keeping their bird feeders properly cleaned.

Like any company that deals in food products, Kaytee must adhere to a very high standard of cleanliness both in the products they sell as well as in the facilities in which those products are produced. Keeping everything clean is a daily exercise and is taken seriously by every one of the company’s 300 employees. The drafty barns are yesterday’s fashion. Today the warehouse and production areas are just as clean as the offices, and are maintained with the same attitude of attention to detail. In all manufacturing areas as well as in some other parts of the buildings, hair and beard nets and safety glasses are required for employees and visitors alike. 

We still need more data
Birds have far greater color perception than we do, and can see a gamma of ultra-violet colors we can’t. They can see fungus when we can’t, but not if it’s in the bottom of the feeder covered by fresh seed.  And a feeder that isn’t clean is a greenhouse for fungus and disease. Their color perception, too, is a whole other field of study that one day is sure to become a factor in packaged bird food. Birds have 4 to 5 different channels (tetrachromats and pentachromats) for conveying color in their eyes, extending their range into the ultraviolet spectrum, while humans have only 3 (trichromats). This means birds and humans see colors differently, and that difference can be a factor in a bird’s choice of food or feeder. But we don’t yet know how those characteristics are manifest in bird behavior. Yet another field of study is taste. A bird has 30 taste buds compared with 6,000 in a squirrel’s mouth. That’s why birds can tolerate hot food and a squirrel cannot. But to what degree does taste influence food choice?

This industry is still woefully lacking in data which could lead to more efficient seed mixes, further advances in packaging and other benefits not yet considered. And as long as new data is needed, Kaytee will continue to test, quantify and innovate, and bring the rest of the bird feeding industry along with it.

The Wild Bird Feeding Industry’s research foundation has been conducting its own surveys into seed consumption by birds over the past 4 years and some of the data collected will certainly influence new bird food mixes. More detail is available on the organization’s web site:

BY RAY DAVID | Editor/Publisher