High feed prices, record fuel costs and a rising electricity bill are all eating into your profit margins.

Energy accounts for about 2 percent of your operating costs. This may seem like a small portion of your expenses, but it is not an area to be ignored. “If you are running close to margin, energy efficiency can make a big difference in profitability,” says Rich Hasselman, energy specialist with Focus on Energy.

Renewable energy has been garnering attention from producers looking to cut energy costs. “If you want to save money and cut costs, the best thing to do is make sure your operation is as energy-efficient as possible,” says Ravi Parikh, energy specialist with EnSave.

Rickreall Dairy in Rickreall, Ore., has been taking measures to improve energy efficiency over the last four years. Energy efficiency has made a big impact on the bottom-line, saving the dairy more than $1,000 per month, says Louie Kazemier, owner of Rickreall Dairy.

Evaluate the following areas for energy efficiency on your operation: 

1. Milk cooling

Milk cooling is where the bulk of your energy expense comes from — 23 percent of annual electric costs, on average.

Two kinds of cooling equipment will help save energy when cooling milk:

  • A scroll compressor is 15 to 20 percent more efficient than the traditional reciprocation compressor. It has fewer moving parts and is only slightly more expensive than the traditional reciprocation compressor. 
  • Well-water plate coolers use well water to cool the milk before it reaches the bulk tank. This type of cooling can cut costs by up to 60 percent.

2. Milk harvest

Installing a variable-speed drive (VSD) on the vacuum pump in your parlor can reduce energy use by 50 percent or more. A VSD regulates the amount of vacuum pressure the system needs at all times.

Research from New York in 2000 showed energy usage for the vacuum pump in free-stall operations ranged from 12 to 149 kilowatt hours (kWh) per cow per year. Tie-stall operations ranged from 33 to 116 kWh per cow per year. The lower number is the result of installing a VSD on the vacuum pump.

Because a VSD operates the vacuum pump at reduced rotations per minute, bearings and other internal components last longer and require less maintenance.

A VSD for a vacuum pump is usually economical for a dairy that milks a total of eight hours or more per day.

“We cut our energy bill in half by installing a VSD,” says Scott Silveira, a 200-cow dairy producer from Los Banos, Calif. “Energy rebates paid for half of the system, and the energy savings paid for our portion within one year.”

3. Fans and ventilation

Fans can be one of the most expensive items to operate, because they run during peak hours. Installing high-energy efficient fans can cut costs.

All fans are not created equal, Parikh says. Fans from different manufacturers vary significantly for air delivery and energy efficiency. Air movement from 36-inch exhaust fans can vary from 6,400 to 13,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM). Energy efficiencies can range from 8.3 to more than 20 CFM per watt.

In general, the larger the fan the higher the CFM per watt, indicating greater efficiency of air movement. When selecting fans, examine the CFM per watt of electricity and choose fans with a high CFM-per-watt rating.

High-velocity low-speed (HVLS) fans are another option for saving energy. HVLS fans can save 50 percent of the energy used on circulation.

Keeping fan blades clean can also cut electricity costs. Fan blades that are coated with dust and debris operate less efficiently. Wind speed and direction sensors can help reduce energy use, as they override fan operation if the wind provides enough cross-flow ventilation.

4. Lighting

Lighting is an area that almost every dairy can improve upon, says Parikh. Fluorescent fixtures are more efficient than incandescent lamps. High-intensity fluorescent fixtures can reduce energy consumption by 50 percent, compared to other fixtures. In parlors, each fluorescent fixture can generate a net savings of about $700 to $1,800 during the life of the light when compared to a typical 400-watt metal halide fixture.

Adjustable electronic ballasts can allow you to turn off or dim free-stall barn lights, which saves money.

“You are usually money-ahead to invest in energy- efficient lighting (although it may cost more initially), because the savings from low operating costs will provide overall benefits for the life of the equipment,” Parikh notes.

Look at the foot-candles and wattage of both the lamps and ballasts when upgrading lights.

5. Washing and water heating

If you have an electric water heater, making the switch to natural gas or propane may be more cost-effective.

“A propane unit will typically heat water four times faster than an electric unit,” says Hasselman.

According to Focus on Energy, if you milk more than 500 cows, converting from electric to natural gas will save approximately $5,800 per year. A conversion from electric to propane will save $4,400 per year.

“Dairy producers should consult with an extension agent, local utility or other trusted professionals to see what their best opportunity may be,” notes Hasselman.

Water conservation is another low-cost way to reduce water-heating costs. You may need to have your dairy equipment dealer tune your pipeline-washing system to reduce the amount of water needed to wash the milking system. Often, too much water is being used to wash milking systems because of poor adjustment.

6. Waste handling

Evaluate your manure pumps and separator. It may be possible to do more with less.

“We recently replaced our separator, which saved us about $1,400 a month in electricity use,” says Kazemier. In addition, he replaced three older manure pumps (with a combined capacity of 600 gallons per minute) with one efficient pump that pumps 1,800 gallons per minute. The pump used to run all the time; now, the pump simply keeps up with the manure supply.

7. Time-of-use management

Adjusting the time you run certain equipment may lower your electricity bill.

By identifying and avoiding higher price periods, you can achieve a lower average cost per kWh.

Storing well water is one way to avoid peak rates. The largest motors are typically the well pumps, and if you size your storage tank for the amount of water used in a six-hour peak period, you can fill it in off-peak hours and drain during peak hours. “You might see an increase in energy usage, but a reduced electric bill,” says Rich Hackner, energy specialist with Focus on Energy.

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Start with an energy audit

Energy audits are a vastly under-used tool that can help dairy producers save energy and money. An energy audit typically analyzes equipment and processes and then provides recommendations for saving energy.

“It is important to review the energy use on your operation every three to five years,” says Rich Hasselman, energy specialist with Focus on Energy. “Something that might not have been feasible last year or the year before might be now.”

“Energy efficiency is not about buying a “widget.” It’s an ongoing process and way of thinking,” Hasselman says.

Contact your local utility company or go to: www.dairyherd.com/management to find a list of organizations in your area that will perform an energy audit.

Energy audits can vary in cost, and some may be free or cost-shared depending upon your location. Different rebates and incentives are available, depending upon where you are located and the improvements made.