Approximately two million tonnes of grain and by-product feeds are imported into Northern Ireland each year.
Such products are then used to produce ruminant and non-ruminant feeds, which are consumed by livestock on both sides of the Irish border.
Around 75%, or 1.5m tonnes (t) of NI’s annual feed imports are handled by one company: West Twin Silos.
Located within Belfast Port, on the mouth of Belfast Lough, West Twin Silos is a subsidiary of W&R Barnett, a key player within international agri-commodity markets.
In addition to docking cargo ships at its primary site on the edge of Belfast Lough, West Twin Silos is also one of the largest grain storage facilities in Europe.
It’s combination of above ground and indoor silos have capacity to store up to 150,000t of grain and feedstuffs at any one time.
An additional 50,000t of storage capacity is located in the northwest of the province, at Lisahally Port outside Derry.
The West Twin Silos site is rented from the Belfast Harbour Commission with a 100-year lease in place between both parties.
As Belfast Lough is not regarded as a deep water port, there are restrictions around the size of ship that can be docked.
The West Twin Silos site is constructed on reclaimed land, with a water depth of 9.5 metres deep at its docking berths.
As such, tidal water plays a crucial role in getting boats into and out of the port safely. During low tides, ships are temporarily held up in the Irish Sea.
The West Twin Silos site is rented from the Belfast Harbour Commission with a 100-year lease in place between both parties
Due to the subsequent delays incurred, additional shipping costs can be incurred if boats overrun their allocated unloading time. Once tides allow, up to three ships can be docked at once.
Unlike all other companies located within the docks, West Twin Silos has its own dedicated berthing site that provides priority docking for grain ships that range in size.
The biggest boat that can be berthed has capacity for 60,000t of grain. However, due to the depth of water, such ships cannot directly dock in Belfast Port when fully loaded.
Instead, such boats are initially docked in either Cork or Foynes outside Limerick, for partial unloading to around 45,000t of freight, a process known as “skimming”.
With grain load lightened, these ships are then able to navigate the shallower waters of Belfast Lough.
The typical boat docking in Belfast will hold between 5,000 and 12,000t of grain or feed by-products.
The site has three cranes that unload boats, one of which is currently being upgraded to give greater lifting capacity and will be operational by August 2023.
This new crane will unload 20t of grain with each bucket, almost double the next sized crane at 12t bucket capacity, and a significant increase from the 8t crane being decommissioned.
The investment in the new crane is paid for by the Harbour Commission, rather than West Twin Silos, although is recouped through rental charges.
Currently, the site takes in 4,000t of wheat each week, along with 1,400t of barley, 2,800t of maize and 3,000t of soya, with all grain consignments being tested before unloading.
Up to 15 different feed products are in storage on site, which include straights, such as maize gluten, wheat distillers, soya hulls and palm kernel.
Weather conditions also have to be factored in when offloading boats, and a rain clause is included within shipping agreements to offset additional shipping charges should boats be delayed when offloading.
Grains will be unloaded in light mizzle, but work is stopped completely should rain graduate into heavier showers.
Pelleted by-products will not be unloaded in any kind of precipitation, as there is a greater risk of feed being denatured.
The site features a mixture of storage facilities to suit the nature of different feed products. Grains are stored in 144 above-ground silos, each with a capacity for 400t.
Lorries park below designated overhead bins, and grain is discharged to fill trailers.
This process is carried out manually, although automation is being integrated into the site.
Maize is stored separately in six cyclindrical above-ground silos to avoid any cross contamination from genetically modified grain. Each silo holds 5,000t of maize.
Two giant warehouses provide storage for products, such as soya and by-product feeds. The West Twin Flat store was built in the 1960s and houses 10 bays, each with capacity for 6,000t.
The Stormont Store was built in the 1990s and has nine bays, each with 7,500t capacity, and one bay with 10,500t capacity.
Imported feed is automatically sent to designated storage units from unloading cranes via overhead conveyors, which are metered by a series of sensors that prevent stores being overfilled.
All feeds in storage are checked weekly for temperature, and tested for quality at 500t intervals leaving the store.
Feed stores are independently checked by external auditors, cleaned down regularly and fumigated to kill pests. Vermin control is ongoing, with pigeons being the main pest, rather than rodents.
Approximately 6,000 lorries are loaded on site each month. During the busy period from January to April, up to 300 lorries/day haul raw material to feed mills across NI and the Republic of Ireland.
Four loading shovels are on site, with drivers working shifts to keep lorries moving throughout the day, each with a 7m3 capacity bucket for rapid filling.
Overhead silos can discharge 70kg of grain/second, or just over 4t/minute, which allows lorries to flow through the site with minimal hold-up.
Keeping the site operational is a huge logistical challenge. Feed stocks are continuously monitored, with buyers purchasing certain products up to nine months in advance.
Operating costs have also increased in the last 12 months. The change from red to white diesel in April 2022 doubled fuel costs for the business.
Shipping charges have also seen huge inflation, and ultimately, the additional costs have to be passed back along the supply chain within the feed trade.