A 1,000-acre operation can typically save $10,000-20,000 a year on energy costs,” says Mark Hanna, an Iowa State University (ISU) Extension agricultural engineer. The range may be from $5,000 to $35,000, depending on the farm.
The first step, Hanna says, is to check out use patterns: “It’s like going on a diet. You need to know where the Btus are going to guide your changes.”
Here’s a checklist of other energy-saving steps from energy experts:
*Review your tax reports on energy use and a year’s worth of energy bills. For grain operations, diesel, electricity and propane typically top the list of farm-energy expenditures.
*Replace air and fuel filters on tractors and pickups, which can deliver a 3-4% bump in fuel efficiency, Hanna says.
*Check belt tensions and keep fan housings and blades clean.
*Monitor tire inflation, tractor ballasting and wheel slippage.
*The big savings come from tillage decisions. “Ask ‘Am I getting a good payback on my tillage?’” says Hanna. “It’s got to make sense in your operation. And if you do till, remember that the fuel use varies with tillage depth.” He notes that no-till methods can limit diesel use to about 2½ gal./acre for row-crop production, while combining primary and secondary tillage maycommonly require 4½-6½ gal.
*Scrutinize pump electrical motors for possible savings, recommends Kip Phiel, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) energy specialist. “An older pump can be inefficient and oversized for the job,” Phiel says. “The purchase price is only about 10% of the lifetime cost for most motors, so there may be good reason to change them out.”
*Look for saving in any process where liquid or airflows are currently controlled with a valve or damper, Phiel says. “A valve eats up a lot of the energy that went into creating the flow in the first place. It’s like controlling a car’s speed with just the brakes,” he says. “There’s usually a very quick financial return on an adjustable-speed drive that runs the motor at a more appropriate speed.”
*Replace older diesel-driven pumps.
*Upgrade lighting systems. “Old fat-tube fluorescent lamps and ballasts (T-12 lamps) are terrible technology,” Phiel says. It’s worth swapping out incandescent lights, and many utilities will pay part of the cost.”
*For confinement buildings, confirm the set points that turn furnaces and fans on, so heaters and fans aren’t fighting each other.
*Examine how electrical equipment is used, in part because of the way electrical bills are calculated. “In some areas, you may pay almost as much for the electrical capacity you require as for the actual electricity,” Phiel says. “Look at several months of bills, and if your demand charge is a large share of the total, then try to manage when you use electricity to reduce your peak load.”
By planning heavy electrical use for different times of the day, you can flatten the demand pattern instead of cranking everything on at the same time – and peak demand is what utilities watch to calculate a customer’s requirements. “That’s why the lowest cost way of being an electricity consumer is to use power overnight,” Phiel says.
*Have a farm-energy audit. “It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” says Phiel. “If you flip it one way to handle energy, it’s going to affect other parts of the operation.”
*Consider tapping outside resources. For example, NRCS has programs to help growers make major decisions like a shift to no-till, he says. “It can help you forecast what a big change like that would do.” The agency also has funds available to help you institute energy-saving measures.
Utility companies and rural electrical cooperatives are valuable resources to tap, especially on energy-efficient grain drying. In the past year electric co-ops have revamped their energy-efficiency programs, according to Regi Goodale of the Iowa Association of Electrical Cooperatives.
“There are some very specific programs like rebates for lighting, high-efficiency fans, variable-speed motors and dairy pre-coolers,” says Goodale. There are also some custom-designed rebates for a given operation. “Even if you’ve checked in the last year, it’s worth checking with your co-op again.”
Different states’ Extension service websites address different energy topics. For example, ISU Extension offers downloadable publications on topics such as Ballasting Tractors for Fuel Efficiency at farmenergy.exnet.iastate.edu/.
Finally, an ambitious new program to help farmers manage energy is in the trial stages. STARS (Strategies Targeting American Agricultural Resources and Sustainability) is an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) initiative to coordinate all energy-use decisions with other farming decisions through an online database.
“Our aim is a ‘one-stop shop’ where growers can plug in their farm’s data from the kitchen table and give a technical service provider enough information to complete a farm-specific energy conservation plan,” says Martha Zwonitzer, ISA technical assistance manager for environmental programs and services.
Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio and South Dakota – are working on STARS and related energy-saving efforts with backing from the soybean checkoff. Small groups of farmers were signing up this winter to give STARS a trial run, but the long-term goal is to make it widely available across the nation.