WCROC wind turbines.

Research Highlights From the Farm Energy Conference

July 7, 2017

University of Minnesota researchers and industry partners showcased their latest innovations and research findings during the Midwest Farm Energy Conference at the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) June 13 in Morris, MN.

The two-day event included information for agricultural producers regarding energy technologies for Midwest farms and tours of the technologies being used by the renewable energy team at WCROC as they work towards creating net-zero dairy and swine facilities. They hope to test techniques and provide producers with information about new technologies and how they may used on farms. 

Below are some of the highlights of the two-day event:

A New Style of Wind Turbine

The WCROC’s 1.65MW wind turbines have become part of the beautiful landscape surrounding the area. The first turbine was installed in 2005 and the second was added in 2011. Together they provide the University of Minnesota, Morris with an average 70 percent of the campus’ electricity.

For 2017, the renewable energy team added two 10kW wind turbines that were installed above ground on a carefully constructed foundation. Significantly, the new turbines can tilt down for easy maintenance. 

WCROC Wind Turbine

Algae to Farm Feed

Robert Gardner and his research team are taking their microbial renewable energy research one step further by exploring algae as a possible on-farm feed source for dairy cows. They started with the dairy lagoon—where nutrient rich wastewater is stored and ready to use—and from there designed a custom-made algae bioreactor that would work well with wastewater (i.e. rather than the traditional flat panel glass system they are using recyclable bags).  

The next step will be to identify the algae stains that would make good potential feed. Usually, when researchers seek specific algae characteristics, they are interested in high oil content (which is better for biofuel), but, in Gardner’s case, he wants varieties high in carbohydrates and proteins.  

Microbes as Renewable Energy Systems

Optimizing Energy Usage in a Functioning Dairy Facility

Both Eric Buchanan and Brad Heins talked about renewable energy in dairy production systems.

For Buchanan, the focus is on optimizing energy production within the system to develop a net-zero energy dairy. To do this, he has focused on four key steps (1) Understanding energy use, (2) Energy efficiency, (3) Converting thermal loads, and (4) Renewable energy.  For step 1, researchers at Morris have been analyzing their energy use within the dairy system since late 2013. One notable discovery early on was that 70 percent more total energy was consumed in the winter compared to the summer due to parlor heating. As for recommended renewable energy systems—for now the team recommends a grid-tie system for most farms.

Heins focused on the need to continue to maintain a functioning dairy facility (with both organic and conventional herds) while optimizing energy usage at the same time. Baseline energy audits, research on potential energy efficient systems and life-cycle analysis revealed two key upgrades to the milking parlor the team could focus on that would not disrupt the overall facility—replacing old compressors and finding alternatives to using space heaters.  

Energy Systems for Dairy Production 

Reevaluating Swine Systems and Their Fossil Fuel Usage

When exploring energy practices and uses in swine facilities researchers had two very important issues to include in their analysis (1) pigs are much larger now than they have been in the past and (2) swine facilities, especially nurseries, have improved designs and technology than in the past.

Early projects focused on reduced nocturnal temperature (RNT) for nursery pigs and how reducing temperatures at night affects everything from mortality rate to performance to fossil fuel usage. Results from two studies showed no change in pig performance or health and significant reductions in both heating fuel and energy usage. The next steps for this research are to look at non-nursery applications and whether there is a need to reevaluate thermal requirements for pigs across the system.

One new project is looking at how we can focus on cooling sows rather than heating them and how that can help energy usage and keep the sows more comfortable. Solar energy panels installed on the WCROC farrowing barn in 2015 are being used to cool water and then circulate it under the sows to help cool them down. 

Energy Systems for Swine Production 

Solar panels at WCROC.

The WCROC at Morris provides an excellent location for key research related to energy usage in agricultural production systems due to its combination of renewable energy, crop, dairy, and swine research programs located at the Center.