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Kahler Automation of Minnesota works at the forefront of fertilizer plant automation

Kahler Automation of Fairmont, Minnesota, installs systems that blend dry and liquid fertilizers, fill trucks and tanks and keep track of inventory and billing. It makes the process safer and faster, with less labor and allows 24/7 access for farmers.

Mitchell Mosher of TDS Fertilizer uses touchscreen
Mitchell Mosher of TDS Fertilizer in Fertile, Minnesota, looks at a touchscreen display of the fertilizer bins while a truck unloads on March 21. The display is part of the Kahler Automation system used by TDS.
Jeff Beach / Agweek
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When Mitchell Mosher started working at TDS Fertilizer in Fertile, Minnesota, he didn’t know much about fertilizer.

But he said he was pretty good with computers. It was during the busy spring fertilizer season that he started learning “on the fly” the automated system at TDS, where farmers can ask for their fertilizer recipe and amount. With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks or perhaps a few taps of a touchscreen, the truck can be loaded within minutes.

Now with more experience with the system, he’s able to load four trucks in an hour. Before the automated system, that would have taken four hours.

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Mitchell Mosher uses a touchscreen inside the TDS Fertilizer plant in Fertile, Minnesota, on March 21, 2022. Mosher said he was able to learn the Kahler Automation system on the job during spring fertilizer season.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

The system TDS uses is made by Kahler Automation, a home-grown southern Minnesota business at the forefront of helping fertilizer dealers automate the process of getting fertilizer nutrients to the farm.

“The basics of it is pretty simple,” Mosher said. “Then as you go you can learn little tips and tricks, how to make it better for you. You can almost customize it to yourself.”

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Kahler Automation of Fairmont, Minnesota, designs, builds and installs systems that blend dry and liquid fertilizers, fill trucks and tanks and keep track of inventory and billing.

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John Christ, CEO of Kahler Automation, shows part of a system for filling bulk liquid containers at the company's Fairmont, Minnesota, headquarters on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

“It’s all about throughput, but also about accuracy, too,” said John Christ, CEO of Kahler Automation.

Accuracy and speed are key in the spring fertilizer rush, says Dwight Christian, one of the founders of TDS Fertilizer.

“It eliminates error,” Christian said of the system that replaced one where a button had to be held down to open one hopper and then another for a simple blend. “Fertilizer happens in about 10 days and you cannot have any hiccups.”

Dwight Christian in his office at TDS Fertilizer in Fertile, Minnesota.
Dwight Christian is one of the founders of TDS Fertilizer in Fertile, Minnesota.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

The TDS bulk fertilizer facility was built about five years ago, with a Kahler Automation system for handling dry fertilizer. Now, the company has switched over its liquid fertilizer distribution to Kahler Automation, also.

Chuck Schrader, inside sales and marketing manager for Kahler Automation, said the ability to make precise blends quickly is something farmers can take advantage of in the era of precision agriculture.

For plants using automation, "there's more opportunity to provide different solutions to their customers," he said.

Kahler’s beginnings

Kahler Automation was started by Wayne Kahler as a spinoff from Kahler Electric, started by Wayne’s father, Roy.

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Wayne Kahler is still the chairman of the board and two children are still in the business. Logan Kahler manages the company’s software engineering and Chantill Kahler Royer is the chief financial officer.

It installed its first scale-based herbicide measuring system sold and installed in Madelia, Minnesota, in 1989 and became a separate company in 1991.

Chuck Schrader in front of a Kahler Automation history display.
Chuck Schrader, inside sales and marketing manager for Kahler Automation, talks about the company's history at a display inside its Fairmont, Minnesota, headquarters on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

While its only offices are in Fairmont, with just over 10,000 residents along Interstate 90, it has become an international company, finding bulk material handling solutions for businesses across the country and in Canada and even Brazil.

While it has some sales employees who work remotely in different regions, most of its 80 employees are in Fairmont.

Christ has only been with Kahler for about a year, moving to Fairmont from the Chicago area.

Christ’s background is in automation, not agriculture, and with much larger companies.

But when looking at the opportunity with Kahler and the projects it was taking on, Christ said, “I couldn’t believe it was only 80 employees here.”

“This is a well put together company,” Christ said. “Small, but it acts like a big company.”

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Customer support

The company prides itself on its 24/7 customer service center and has three airplanes to fly to help customers if needed.

“That’s why they keep coming back,” Christ said. “We stand behind it, we support it.”

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A Kahler Automation employee tests electrical circuit connections on Friday, March 11, 2022, as part of an automation system is readied for shipping.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

After first learning on the job, Mosher has been to Fairmont for training along with Logan Christian, the son of Dwight Christian.

Logan Christian said he and other employees have traveled about once a year to Fairmont to get a “refresh” on the system before the busy spring fertilizer application season.

Now they have run the system for a few years, that’s not as important but he said the training and being able to put a face to name when dealing with issues is one of the things he likes about Kahler.

“It’s very easy to call down there,” he said.

“Going to the Kahler system has made it more efficient and simplified,” Logan Christian said.

Kahler Automation also has developer remote and interactive trainings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smoothing out the spring rush

Mosher said about half the fertilizer orders are placed ahead of time while others just come from the truck driver.

“They say, ‘I want the same thing I got last year,’" Mosher said, and the record-keeping part of the software makes that easy to find.

A 50-50 split between two hoppers, is another common request, and he said the Kahler system makes that easy to do.

Dwight Christian said there used to be days during the spring rush when they were loading trucks until 2 a.m.

There used to be days when trucks were being filled at 2 a.m.

“There’s not a lot of backup anymore,” Mosher said.

While not used at TDS, Kahler Automation also makes remote fertilizer loading systems, where a truck driver can punch in the proper code for a blend, pull into the truck bay and be loaded up at any time of the day or night. A recent project at United Farmers Cooperative, in Farragut, Iowa, is one example of such a project.

Christ said the company makes systems that might range from $20,000 up to $2 million.

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Mitchell Mosher watches as fertilizer unloads in Fertile, Minnesota, on Monday, March 21, 2022. The Kahler Automation system keeps track of how full the system is and will sound an alarm if it senses a problem.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

While fertilizer is its niche, it is capable of other bulk material handling.

“We are big in the ag world, but we do a little bit more than ag, too” Christ said.

One new area for Kahler Automation is for the sugarbeet industry. It is using sensors in beet piles attached to an automated fan system to help preserve the quality of the beets.

While not providing too many details, Christ said there are some net product solutions in the works.

“Some new products are going to really appeal to some of our larger co-op partners that we do business with that will help manage multiple facilities,” Christ said.

For Kahler Automation, “We are always trying to be innovative,” Christ said.

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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