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Students Find Doughnuts, Coffee and Corn at Last Site Visit

March 12, 2012

For their last site visit, the students in the Farm Energy Auditor Training Program ventured out this past month to Jeff Kosek’s farm near Brownton to learn about grain drying operations and conduct an energy audit. Depending on how wet conditions are at harvest time, grain drying can represent a significant energy use and therefore has some unique considerations in how that use ebbs and flows with the seasons and weather.

Students chat before the site visit gets underway and the dog takes advantage of all the attention.

It was a cool, gray February morning as the class assembled. Two weeks before was Groundhog’s Day when Punxsutawney Phil had glimpsed his shadow. Now the quiet bare trees and overcast sky seemed to confirm the rodent’s prognostication of four more weeks of winter still. Jeff greeted the group with a big smile and, once everyone had arrived, he led the group out of the chill and inside the shop where he had fresh hot coffee and doughnuts waiting. What a host! Jeff’s pets, a dog and a cat, true mascots for the farm, were every bit as personable and made the morning all the more enjoyable as they visited each person in turn.

With the group settling in, instructor Jennifer Brinker started things off, introducing our host and giving a brief overview of what the class’s visit would entail. She then handed it over to Jeff who talked about his farm and grain drying operation.

Our host Jeff Kosek and trainer Jennifer Brinker.He supplied the students with historical data on liquid propane (LP) use, bushel quantity and moisture records by year. Jeff currently has an annual capacity of around 200,000 bushels of grain and mostly harvests and dries corn. Some of this is sold to a nearby ethanol factory and some to Cargill, 10,000 bushels is sold for feed, and the rest goes wherever the market is best. As Jeff looks at expanding his capacity, he is considering newer equipment that is even more energy efficient than what he currently has. This could make a big difference in his business. For example, Jeff said there was an energy cost difference of 35 cents per bushel in a new system over the old one.

Shannon Jerabek, one of the class participants and also a representative from McCleod Electric Cooperative, provided electric usage data and talked about how the utility works with Jeff and other ag customers. It was interesting to hear how the utility had helped install the heated floor in the shop we were standing in. McLeod Electric had encouraged Jeff to use electric heating pads under the concrete floor and had covered much of the cost. The utility is able to control when these heaters turn on and off in order to balance their loads and meet power demand. Typically this means the heat is turned on over night when demand is less (and also when wind power supply is stronger) and the concrete slabs retain that heat and release it through the daytime, maintaining a very comfortable base temperature in the shop.

The Farm Energy Auditor Training Program students look at the grain drying facilities.Next, Jeff led the group outside to look at the grain drying facilities up close. He had just hauled off a load of corn early that same morning and the semi truck and trailer were parked next to the bins ready to be filled again. Jeff explained that each trailer holds about 1,000 bushels and he outlined how he both fills and unloads the truck with corn using the augers. In harvest season, a steady stream of trucks brings the corn to the bins and the grain is augered up into the first drying bin to start the process. He can dry about 15,000 to 20,000 bushels per day with fans running non-stop. (See all the photos from the last site visit.)

In the basic grain drying system, corn (or another grain) is loaded into a bin with a perforated floor, a spreader, sweep auger, a fan and possibly a heater. The object is to get the grain to an appropriate moisture level so that it will not mold or otherwise spoil. The grain must also be kept away from insects, mites, rodents and other pests that might likewise spoil it. Unless extra heat is called for, generally a fan pulls in outside air and blows it into the base of the bin where it flows up through the floor and works through the grain, drying it. Drying time can take several days to several weeks, depending on the moisture of the grain and weather conditions (especially humidity). Once the grain is brought to the desired moisture level, it is moved into a storage bin for longer term storage.

Students check the manufacturer's information, which allows energy auditors to find specific energy use information for each element of equipment.As the group strode around the bins – wary of the ice that lay in between – the students asked questions about fan and motor types and run-times and took down manufacturer information from the many fans and motors installed on the bins. The dog and cat scampered along, imitating an interest in the machinery as well. Jeff opened up a couple of the bins that were less full to give students a chance to see inside. And after a bit more chatting and questions on energy use, the site visit wrapped up with Jake Fischer going over the requirements for the final class project – for each student to complete a farm energy audit of their own – and thanking all the students for their good work and participation in this first Farm Energy Auditor Training Program.

Since then the students have been conducting their final project energy audits and will soon be receiving a certificate of completion. With the knowledge gained from participating in this first round of the Farm Energy Auditor Training Program, they will be able develop a career in providing energy audits to farms and rural businesses. They are among the first in the state and even the country to be trained specifically to do this and we have high hopes for the benefit that this will bring to Minnesota’s farming community and rural businesses.

The Farm Energy Auditor students are among the first in the state and the country to be trained specifically to do conducts audits for farms and rural businesses.The program has been a collaborative effort, made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Minnesota Department of Commerce through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). We’re eager to see it offered regularly in the years to come. Thanks again to all the students who participated in this first Farm Energy Auditor Training Program as well as the instructors who shared their expertise along with their enthusiasm for the work.

Best of luck to them all!

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