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Diversifying With Nutrena Mills

After World War II, Cargill acquires a Midwest-based feed company, expanding its portfolio and introducing a new business culture.

January 01, 2015

In August of 1945, a headline published in Cargill News read: “Where do we go from here?”

It was post-World War II in the US, and the agricultural community was apprehensive about the future. There were predictions of large food surpluses and dropping prices, which was what happened in 1919 after the First World War came to an end.

By October, it was clear that the post-war effects would be different this time, pointing Cargill to a focus on feed. Animal feeds were in short supply and large manufacturers were starting to experiment with scientific formulations. To enhance Cargill’s initial step into feeds, Cargill President John MacMillan, Jr., acquired Nutrena Mills, Inc., a move that would double its animal feed business and diversify its customer base.

A leading midwestern feed producer, Nutrena operated mills out of Kansas City and Coffeeville, Kansas, and Sioux City, Iowa. Producing 23,000 tons of feed per month, the 25-year-old company was considered a pioneer, producing popular lines of poultry, hog and dairy feed, plus specialty feeds for rabbits and dogs. Beyond its mill properties, the company owned an experimental farm near Kansas City, where feeds were tested in real-time conditions.

While its product portfolio aligned closely with Cargill’s grain business, Nutrena also introduced an entirely new concept to Cargill: marketing. The company showed a clear, intuitive understanding of their customers’ wants and needs. Feed sack packaging made use of special “pretty prints”—decorative patterns that farm housewives loved to repurpose for clothing and home accents—and sales promotions were regularly carried by Nutrena’s airplane to gain attention. Nutrena had also mastered the use of the radio broadcast.

[video caption] Nutrena Mills is well-known by consumers for its upbeat print and radio advertisements, such as this jingle broadcast from the 1940s.

It was apparent that Nutrena’s business model and culture were drastically different from Cargill’s. Nutrena was consumer-facing and spent large sums of money on marketing. They also had a regional sales force, functioning across six territories with decentralized operations and autonomous managers—a clear contradiction to Cargill’s centralized grain business.

Over time, Cargill’s culture became more like Nutrena’s: market-driven and more attentive to the needs of the customer. It helped inspire a new direction for the grain firm, shifting focus from commodities to customers in the 21st century. Today, Cargill’s animal nutrition business employs 17,000 people in 40 countries who are dedicated to providing customers unmatched expertise on animal nutrition and performance.