From prototype to production line

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

When Bob Lutz built a prototype for the Feed Train back in 1997, he was solving a problem on his own family farm. At the time, he and his nephew, Jeff Lutz, had implemented a rotational grazing system, and it often took hours to move their 30 feed bunks among 14 paddocks. Bob thought if he could make the bunks portable, he could cut down the process from hours to minutes.

So he did it. He created the first Feed Train—a system of mobile feeders that couple together similar to train cars—and now owns and operates the factory where they are manufactured.

“The idea was basically born out of necessity,” Bob said. “It was something we needed for ourselves around the farm.”

Though some may consider the task daunting, Bob said this type of construction and design has always come naturally. As a kid, he would while away time building the toy sailboats and scooters he saw in his brother’s Popular Mechanics magazines.

“I grew up on the family farm, and money was tight back then,” Bob said. “I knew that if I wanted something, I would have to build it.”

Bob’s first Feed Train was made up of 30 mobile bunks he built mostly in his farm shop. Each feed bunk sits on a two-wheel axle. The first bunk attaches to the trailer hitch of a truck, and each subsequent bunk links to the one before it, making it easy to lengthen or shorten the train as desired. In addition to its mobility, the steering system also makes the Feed Train unique. Each feed bunk closely tracks the one in front of it, making navigating turns and narrow entrances, such as gates, easy.

The original 30 cars are still being used on the family farm today, though many modifications have since been made to the original design. For example, Bob now uses a heavier-gauge steel. He jokingly blames that change on his wife, Irene. She previously worked as a steel salesperson, and that’s how the two met.

“I sold him the wrong steel,” Irene said with a grin.

Bob and Irene married shortly before they started their business, Feed Train, LLC, named after their flagship product. She now manages the front office and does the company’s accounting.

Though countless hours went into setting up a manufacturing business from the ground up, Bob said it was simply more problem-solving. In 1999, he applied for a patent on the Feed Train steering system, and in 2001 his application was granted. When the time came to set up shop and produce en masse, Bob searched near and far to locate and test the equipment that would make up his assembly line.  

“I would travel to find the people that had these machines to make the prototypes in the first run,” he explained. “I had to go all the way to Boone, Iowa, to find someone who could roll and form the bunks. Once we knew what we needed and that it would work for our purposes, we bought the equipment. The first prototypes were quite a bit different than what we manufacture today.”

When the Lutzes started the business, their 20,000-square-foot factory in Unionville, Mo., sat mostly empty, housing only one plasma cutting table, a main press break, a cold saw and a few tools Bob brought over from the farm. The factory has since filled with both machinery and workers. Feed Train now employs 21 people full time. In a small rural economy, that number is significant.

In addition to the inaugural Feed Train line, Bob and Irene have expanded their product selection to include creep feeders, ATV and UTV feeders, and mobile and stationary bulk bins and seed tenders. Though the larger items are available exclusively through MFA retailers, the ATV and UTV feeders can be shipped nationwide. Orders have even come in from Canada.

“Most everything is manufactured in house, except for the round pipe and the plastic tanks on the UTV and ATV feeders,” Bob said. “The plastic is formed by another local manufacturer in Missouri. The steel comes in sheets, and we cut it on the plasma table. Then we bend and assemble it.”

What took Bob six weeks to build as a prototype can now be constructed from start to finish in about 45 minutes. Bob said he constructs products like he would want them built for his own use.

“We kind of have the farmer mentality when it comes to construction,” he said. “We probably tend to overbuild, but it lasts.”

Now-retired MFA Farm Supply Division Manager Ben Murray said it was that concern for quality and Bob’s inventive mindset that interested him when he saw the original prototype.

“Bob’s a very innovative individual,” Ben said. “If you look at their feeder, it’s got a lot of little bells and whistles that you won’t see on others. He spends a lot of time on the products to get them where he wants them.”  

While there are cheaper products out there, MFA Farm Supply Product Manager Eric Allen said, “You may have to buy that product many times over, whereas Bob makes products to last.”

Bob said he just wants his customers to be happy.

“We want to produce quality, and we’ll service our products in the field if we need to,” he said. “Customer satisfaction is the most important thing.”

For more information on Feed Train products, contact your local MFA retailer.


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