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Scientists at the West Central Research and Outreach Center are building a dairy operation that runs on renewable energy

MORRIS, Minn. – Renewable energy projects have, historically, focused on the way that humans can reduce their fossil fuel consumption. But Minnesota is home to more livestock than people: 468,000 milk cows and 7.8 million pigs compared to just 5.3 million residents.

Because livestock production facilities have concentrated energy loads and standardized facilities, they offer a prime opportunity for investing in renewable energy systems.

Scientists at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris are beginning a multiyear project on a clean energy system for livestock as part of a larger strategic goal to reduce the fossil fuel consumption of agricultural production systems.

“Livestock don’t use as much energy as people, but the energy is easier to displace,” said Mike Reese, director of renewable energy.

During the first phase of the project, which is already underway, scientists will work to build a “net-zero” milking parlor at the WCROC by installing energy-efficient systems and incorporating renewable power sources like wind and solar energy.

“It was a natural fit, a new progression that we were taking to incorporate renewable energy technologies into the livestock units here – the dairy seemed like a good fit to start with,” said Brad Heins, assistant professor of organic dairy production.

“It’s a good fit for us because we always have a desire to do interdisciplinary research,” agreed Reese. “This is a nice tie between dairy scientists, swine scientists and crop production scientists.

To help fund the project, the WCROC has secured a $350,000 grant from the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment and another $170,000 from the university’s Rapid Agricultural Response Fund.

These grants will be used to install energy-efficient equipment into the WCROC’s milking parlor, including a variable speed pump, plate coolers to remove heat from the milk, and electric rather than kerosene pressure washers.

Because the WCROC has two dairy herds, one organic and one traditional, researchers will also be able to compare the energy needed for organic and non-organic milk.

“Some of the current thought is that organic uses more energy simply because there’s not as much herbicides and pesticides used,” Reese said. “For example, it will take more passes through a field to mechanically remove the weeds.”

Scientists have been monitoring energy and water usage in the milking parlor since April to start getting a baseline energy use measurement. As new technology is added, scientists will start to assess if or how the changes affect those numbers.

Eventually, scientists will be able to do a full life cycle analysis on dairy and swine production to assess greenhouse gas emissions from the different systems.

The WCROC is also looking for more grant money to expand the project further. On Oct. 2, Reese made a presentation to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, a citizen/legislative panel that makes funding recommendations for environmental and natural resource projects. If the three-year grant is approved, it would be used to add a small wind turbine and solar panels to both the dairy and swine barns.

Heins said the systems being tested at the WCROC are of a scope that’s applicable to the midsized dairies – between 100 and 500 cows – that are common in Minnesota.

“Dairies in Minnesota consume a lot of energy,” Heins said. “I would suspect even dairies that are midsized would consume a lot more energy than we do” because many dairies house cows inside year-round. In contrast, cows at the WCROC spend the summer outdoors.

“A goal would be to have a retrofit package available that dairy producers and swine producers could integrate in their facilities,” Reese said. “Farmers don’t want to have the hassles of systems that don’t work. That’s why the systems are nice today. Even though they’re energy hogs, they’re very reliable and very durable – you don’t have to worry about it.”

If the project is successful, the results will give farmers confidence in that these commercially-available technologies will work for their operations. The state Legislature has also passed laws providing incentives for producers to incorporate solar systems.

At the same time, processors like General Mills and Coca-Cola are being pushed by their customers to reduce their carbon footprint. This project is an effort to provide producers with tools to meet those future market requirements, Reese said.

Researchers will have an opportunity to share the results of the research at an international conference at the WCROC on renewable energy systems for livestock in June 2015.

“By that time some of these things will be in and if we get funding for the others we’ll be able to showcase those systems,” Heins said.