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0109 PD: Could you save $15,000 in energy costs?

Sarah Jackson Published on 23 December 2008

A dairy producer’s work is never done. Whether it’s feeding the heifers, fertilizing the field or registering new calves, there is always something that needs to get done.

In today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, dairy producers are also learning to integrate sustainable practices into their dairy operations. Sustainability is a concept that has moved to the forefront of producers’ minds as the troubling U.S. economic situation pushes dairy producers to become more efficient.

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This includes saving time, conserving our precious natural resources and of course, saving money to add to the bottom line. All of this must be accomplished while also maintaining, if not surpassing, milk production levels and animal health.

Like all Americans, dairy producers have suffered the effects of higher energy costs. In turn, this also raises feed costs, meaning higher inputs for dairy operations. Those producers who raise their own feed have additional costs in other forms.

“When you look at farming operations in total, including the cost of water pumping for growing operations to produce feed, you’re seeing an increase,” says Pat Day, an account executive with Southern California Edison, one of the largest electrical companies in the U.S., located in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The company serves many dairy operations of various sizes in the valley.

“Specifically, utility costs aren’t huge for them (dairy producers) in the parlor itself,” Day says. “Dairy producers are faced with some hurdles today that weren’t there just a few years ago.”

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Some dairy producers do not have as much land to farm and are more focused about their operations, Day says. Traditionally, some dairy producers have used groundwater sources in their milk refrigeration systems.

However, regulatory pressure has been placed on these producers to decrease their groundwater use, due to reduced water availability from severe drought conditions in the West over the past few years.

This situation has come to a critical point, according to Day.

“We’re seeing a trend slowly occurring in the dairy farms where dairymen are shifting over,” Day said. “Groundwater issues are huge.”

This has caused dairy producers to seek other ways of using cool air, evaporative cooling or condensation systems that use less groundwater to refrigerate their bulk tanks.

“It uses less groundwater, but ends up costing more because it’s a less efficient system,” Day says. “You save money on one side, but you’re paying on the other.”

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Dairy producers can find satisfactory solutions.

According to Gary Suzuki, who runs the agricultural energy efficiency program for Southern California Edison, energy efficiency can play a role in meeting each regulation.

“If you can be more efficient, you can even reduce the amount of pollution emitted and use water resources more effectively,” he says. Day references some dairy producers he has worked with that are already doing this in their operations.

“The water they use in large amounts is actually used in a very efficient manner,” he says. “They get up to three to four times the amount of use of that water.”

Day says these producers pump groundwater to wash equipment, then use it to flush walkways and freestall areas. Then the water is put through the farm’s cooling system, and from there is collected in a central location, such as a pond or lagoon. After that, the water is mixed with groundwater and finally put on the producer’s fields as irrigation.

“They’re helping to use less energy, because it helps lower the overall energy usage requirements in the entire state,” Suzuki says. “In theory, it frees up electricity for other users in the state.” He adds that this practice helps dairy producers reduce the amount of electricity they use, which cuts electrical bills.

"At the same time, it makes these producers more efficient, while not losing any milk production. They can actually get the same level or a higher level of production using less energy,” Suzuki says. “This makes them more cost-competitive in their milk production.”

He also suggests other technologies or ideas that producers can easily and economically implement into their operations that can make a big difference on saving energy. “It can be as simple as changing out some of the lights they use in the areas where they house the cows,” Suzuki says. “Using incandescent lights or mercury vapor lights is very inefficient. Pulse-start metal halide or fluorescent-based lights can save a lot of energy.”

Day says that changing lighting alone can save 25 to 40 percent of energy use. Technology not only makes dairy operations more modern and progressive but also can improve efficiency.

Suzuki offers other energy- efficient ideas for keeping cows cool during hot summers, such as using large ceiling fans in barns and pens. The fans not only save energy, but also a lot of money as well.

“Cooling costs are significant if the producer has inefficient fans,” he says. By replacing old fans with higher- efficiency ones, dairy producers can save up to 20 percent on fan cooling costs. “Some more complex technologies that save a lot of energy are things like variable speed devices,” he says.

This change in the motor controls the operating speed of the motor depending on the amount of work that needs to be done.

For example, the dairy vacuum system is not used all the time. Instead of keeping the motor running all the time, the variable speed device fluctuates the motor’s speed when there is a high usage needed. If no work is occurring, the motor is revved down. This is when the key energy savings happens.

“The variable speed device responds almost immediately to the actual vacuum demands of the cow milking system,” Day says. “Using a water ring vacuum pump is an inefficient system.

A positive displacement pump works even better at half the horsepower. There are a lot of different technologies coming into play. We help dairy producers become aware of these technologies.” Using the new system, dairy producers can save 40 to 60 percent of energy that they normally use.

“This has been very successful,” Day says. “This system has spread to all the dairies in the area and is the technology of choice for new construction. It helps drive down operating costs and the energy use associated with it.”

Suzuki agrees but says the size of the dairy operation matters in energy savings.

“The larger the dairy, the more energy and money they’re going to save,” he says. “Just upgrading the vacuum pump systems can see a savings in the range of $2,500 a year for a smaller farm to between $15,000 to $20,000 per year for a larger operation.”

Day adds that the improved system should run well for a decade or more, saving more money each year. If the variable drive that runs the refrigeration system is also installed, a savings of 20 to 30 percent more can be gained.

“This technology determines how much milk is going to be needed to run through the plate cooler,” Day says. “The milk is isolated from the refrigerant and water stream, so it stays uncontaminated.”

The motor controls the amount of milk flow across the milk cooler, using less energy. While all of these methods can save producers money in the long run, not all dairies can implement these technologies right away.

Day notes that not all dairies are alike, and each has its own unique needs. However, he urges dairy producers to seek out specific areas on their operations that show a need for energy efficiency improvement. PD

Sarah Beth Jackson is a freelance writer in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Gary Suzuki
Southern California Edison Energy Adviser

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