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On the Road to Farm Energy Efficiency

December 8, 2011

If you had been at the Dairy Expo last week in St. Cloud, you would have seen all aspects of the dairy industry, from nutritionists to insurance companies, farm equipment and surveillance cameras, banks, lighting, even a robotic milker! And, yes, lots and lots of dairy products on the menu. Coordinated by the Minnesota Milk Producer’s Association, the Midwest Dairy Expo is Minnesota’s largest annual dairy event, complete with a tradeshow, educational sessions, and networking opportunities.

The Minnesota Project at the 2011 Midwest Dairy ExpoAmong the exhibitors you also would have spotted The Minnesota Project. We were excited to participate in the expo again this year as a sponsor and to share information on farm energy efficiency.

After waking at a farmerly hour on Tuesday, the 29th, I picked up communications intern Valerie Steffl to carpool and we drove through the early morning darkness to St. Cloud, Minnesota’s third-largest population center and home to this year’s Midwest Dairy Expo in the town’s civic center. Once there, we set up our table with an eye-catching display, fact sheets and reports on various farm energy efficiency topics (including our new Energy Efficient Dairies fact sheet), and milk chocolate – for enticement.

It wasn’t long before we were talking with dairy farmers, fellow exhibitors, and ag science students. Jake Fischer manned the booth on Wednesday and continued the conversation with expo attendees.

FDairy Survey Respondent Locationseatured at The Minnesota Project’s table was a drawing for a free farm energy audit, or the consolation prize of one of two block heater timers. A number of people entered. The entry form for the drawing doubled as a survey of dairy farmers to see what energy efficiency improvements they may have made to their operations. The survey is a way to help us know how best The Minnesota Project can work with farmers and utilities to forge connections and let people know about available resources. It was encouraging to find that most people we talked with were knowledgeable about many efficiency measures and enthusiastic about finding other ways to save energy and money.

Although the number of survey responses we received does not comprise a statistically significant sample size, the answers farmers gave, as well as the conversations we had, offer a preliminary look at energy efficiency on Minnesota’s dairy farms.

Dairy Survey Herd Size and Upgrades

Chart 2: Herd Size and Energy Efficiency Upgrades

Here’s what we learned from the surveys so far. Of the 18 dairy farmers who completed a survey, a majority were from Central Minnesota (see the chart above), appropriately the location of a majority of the state’s dairy farms too. Though our sample size was small, there nonetheless seemed to be some correlation between herd size and the number of upgrades undertaken (See Chart 2), which may speak to a lack of capital and resources available for smaller operations to utilize in pursuing more efficiency.

Still, most had made some energy efficiency improvements, especially with upgrading to milk plate-coolers/water pre-heaters, refrigeration heat recovery, and efficient lighting. Few had installed variable-speed drives or scroll compressors, though (See Chart 3).

Chart 3: Percentage of Dairy Survey Respondents that Made Upgrades

Chart 3: Percentage of dairy survey respondents who have made various energy efficiency upgrades

It was interesting to graph the data afterward and visualize it as indicative of which efficiency ideas and technologies had permeated dairy practice and which had not yet, for whatever reason (See Chart 4).

Chart 4: Percentage rate of adoption of energy efficiency upgrades

Chart 4; Moving from inside to outside, each circle within the chart corresponds to the categories of upgrades in Chart 3

Also, none of the farmers surveyed, nor any of the farmers with whom we spoke, had ever had an energy audit done – even though a good many were interested. Several farmers talked about the difficulty they’d had in finding a qualified auditor, especially for some of the federal rebate programs. Likewise, several energy auditors commented on the challenges they had faced so far in trying to become certified for providing farm energy audits. This speaks to the strong need that Minnesota has for farm-specific energy auditors. We’re pleased that the Farm Energy Auditor Training Program we’ve started this year will help address these needs.

In the months ahead, we will continue with our outreach to dairy farmers and local utilities to highlight the options for energy efficiency on farms. As our Farm Energy Auditor Training proceeds, we will be looking into the best ways to pair the program graduates with farmers interested in energy assessments, as well as how best to help farmers utilize the funding resources that are available to help them ultimately save energy and money. In the meantime, we also hope to expand our pool of survey responses. If you are a Minnesota dairy farmer, please help us by filling out this quick online survey.

Beyond the conversations we had and what we learned from the surveys, the highlight, at least for me, was watching the video on Enchanted Dairy, Minnesota’s 2011 Producer of the Year award winner. It was great to hear the Miller family’s story and see how passionate they are about their work. Congratulations to them.

Watch the video on Enchanted Dairy for yourself on YouTube >>

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