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October 2011 Archive for Dairy Today Expo Extra

RSS By: Catherine Merlo, Dairy Today

Dairy Today's Catherine Merlo brings you the latest from the World Dairy Expo.

Why Don’t More Dairies Have Digesters?

Oct 09, 2011

They are some of the dairy industry’s anaerobic digester pioneers, the innovators who have taken steps—no, leaps—to create renewable energy, better manage manure, produce a steady supply of cow bedding, or simply lessen their dairy’s environmental footprint by reducing air emissions and odor.

WDE pix Oct 5 6 2011 035   Copy
Members of a producer panel discuss their anaerobic digester experiences Oct. 6 at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.

Despite their varied and sometimes difficult digester experiences, all eight members of a panel discussion at World Dairy Expo last week remain advocates of biogas production—and united in their call for a national energy policy that includes more support for manure-generated energy.

"Biogas has far more to add to the national energy grid than wind or solar," said panel member John Vrieze, a Wisconsin dairy producer who has built two digesters since 2005.

"I’ve been a fan of renewable energy for 15 years," Vrieze said. "But it’s going to take more regulatory or economic incentive for power companies to participate with dairies. Too many electric cooperatives don’t cooperate."

Vrieze thought he would reap income from turning his dairy’s biogas into natural gas. But natural gas has fallen from $10 kw/hour to $3, to his disappointment. Now his first digester’s biggest benefit is the manure-based bedding it turns out, while his second digester's current role is providing heat for a nearby greenhouse.

Panel member Mark Jacobs, a Wisconsin dairy producer who put his digester into production nine months ago, said a policy change or more incentive is needed to build more digesters and ensure their viability. "Making biogas is no longer a technical challenge," Jacobs said. "But more resources are needed. We have a policy problem."

"Environmentally, there are lots of good reasons to build digesters," said panel member Lee Jensen. "But building a digester has to be economically feasible. It can be expensive. If you don’t have the equity, you might be better off with more cows or paying down debt."

In 2005, Jensen, also a Wisconsin dairy producer, became one of the first U.S. dairy producers to join with a manufacturer to build an onsite digester. Jensen’s Five Star Dairy also struck an agreement to sell the digester’s biogas to a local energy utility.

But Jensen’s road to renewable energy hasn’t been easy. The digester manufacturer, Microgy, declared bankruptcy last year. Another company has taken over the digester’s operation, and Jensen said his digester "hasn’t missed a beat." Even so, the six-year-old project "has been learning, learning, learning," Jensen said. He added that he was glad he had built his digester, and sees the potential for many more biogas systems in the U.S. 

"We could produce more gas, but there’s no incentive without a market," Jensen said. "If our power rates were [as high] as they are in Europe, digesters would be all over."

So why aren’t they?

Wisconsin’s Karl Crave of Crave Brothers Farm, whose family’s aboveground digester became operational in 2007, also said a policy change or more incentive is needed. "Vermont’s the only state that’s doing a good job [with digester incentives]," Crave said.

Perhaps no comment struck me more than one from Mike Geerlings, who, in 2006, built Michigan’s first dairy digester project at his Scenic View Dairy.

"This country would have been better off if all that Solyndra money had gone to digester development instead," Geerlings said. "Solar and wind don’t compare with biogas in cost-per-kilowatt return."

You’ll recall that in the last few weeks, we’ve learned that the U.S. Department of Energy provided a $535 million taxpayer loan guarantee to the solar firm Solyndra, which has since declared bankruptcy.

Renewable energy from wind is only 30% efficient, Geerlings said, while dairy digesters—which operate and produce 365 days a year—offer 90% efficiency. But apparently that fact doesn’t seem to mean much in government energy circles.

"Digesters are black sheep," Geerlings added. "It’s an industry that relies on large animals, so we’re not politically correct."

So, if I understand correctly, we (in the broad national sense) shell out millions to solar and wind companies whose energy reliance isn’t even half of biogas. We fight wars that have at least some connection to our dependence on foreign oil. We throw up roadblocks to digester development, at least in California, with a morass of permitting hurdles in the name of air and water quality concerns.

Why, when energy is so important, don’t more dairies have digesters? It’s a good question.

AgSTAR, a division of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, has obviously given this some thought. It sponsored the World Dairy Expo session, "Straight from Producers: The Real Story on Anaerobic Digestion Systems."

But obviously more—much more—is needed. President Obama, Congress, U.S. Department of Energy, do you have a good answer?


The “Free-Flow World” Beckons

Oct 06, 2011

Judging by the standing-room-only attendance at two sessions at World Dairy Expo Thursday, there’s strong interest in robotic milking among dairy producers.

 WDE pix Oct 5 6 2011 062   Copy
Lely displays its Astronaut A4 Next robotic milking system at World Dairy Expo.

"Automatic milking is clearly a technology that is here to stay," said Douglas Reinemann of the University of Wisconsin in an educational seminar on automatic milking.

For Nor-Bert Farms of Bremen, Ind., that’s certainly true. The multi-generational dairy installed three Lely Astronaut A3 Next robotic milking units in 2010.

Family members shared that experience during a Virtual Farm Tour that followed Reinemann’s presentation.

"Life is forever changed with our robotic milking units," said Nor-Bert co-owner and family member Jennifer Freeman. "It was the right fit for us."

Ready to upgrade its older parlor and unwilling to hire more labor, the family decided to install the automated units after three years of research. "My grandfather, who started the dairy in 1945, was opposed at first to robots," Jennifer said. "But after seeing them work, he admits he was wrong."

Since it began robotic milking in August 2010, Nor-Bert Farms has seen multiple benefits. The dairy has reduced the numbers of cows it milks, from 153 to 147, in the last year. "But we’re getting more milk production," Jeremy Freeman said.

The dairy has a rolling herd average of 27,900 lb. Average per-cow production is 90 lb. of milk. Cows visit a robotic milking unit three times a day.

"Robotic milking also gives us more flexibility with our time," Jeremy Freeman said.

The Freemans said it takes some cows only three to five days to adjust to using the robotic milking, while others may take up to two weeks. "During the transition to robotic milking, we don’t force the cows to go into the units," Jeremy said. "We encourage them to keep going through the unit and eventually they learn. They adapt real quickly after they’ve calved."

Cows enter any of the three robotic milking units at will. Some cows always go to the same robotic unit. Others will enter whichever one is open. The animals wear collars with transponders that transmit cow-specific information to the robotic unit. They step into the unit, and it automatically hooks milking equipment to the cows. But the animals aren’t there for the milking. They’re there for the feed pellets placed in the robot’s stall.

"Feed is the key, not the drive to be milked," said Rick Rugg of Lely, which selected Nor-Bert Farms as its first choice for its Virtual Farm Tour. He referred to robotic milking as "the free-flow world."

Cows are fed a partial mixed ration (PMR) in the feedbunks. The pellets in the robotic milking unit make up the rest of their diet.

Nor-Bert Farms has had minimal start-up and equipment problems with the robotic units, Jennifer said. Family members have learned to handle minor maintenance needs, such as changing out the liners or checking hoses for holes. Their robots are on a quarterly maintenance schedule with a Lely technician.

Rugg estimated there are 12,000 robotic milking units in the world today. "We expect more by year’s end," he said. "In Western Europe, 60% to 70% of new milking installations are robots."

Lely sponsored the Nor-Bert Virtual Farm Tour. DeLaval sponsored Reinemann’s Expo Seminar.


Save Energy, Money – and Maybe Even the Planet

Oct 05, 2011

Is the lighting in your dairy as energy efficient as it could be? What about your dairy's compressors? Did you know that milk cooling accounts for 26% of your dairy’s total energy use, followed closely by ventilation?

If you’ve put off conducting an energy audit on your dairy, you may want to consider adding that to your to-do list this fall.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy has just launched a new SaveEnergy online resource that offers all kinds of ways to help dairies streamline energy use, including energy-saving tips and, most important, where to find financial assistance for audits and equipment upgrades. 

“Many dairy producers aren’t aware of how easy or affordable it could be to adopt energy efficient best practices,” says Steve Graybeal, a dairy producer from Lancaster County, Pa. He’s also a member of Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Council. “We want to change that with tools like SaveEnergy.”

I met with representatives of Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) Wednesday at World Dairy Expo. NRCS recently teamed up with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to support the SaveEnergy tool.  All were excited about the opportunities the new initiative offers to dairies.

The new website offers material on how to cut costs on farm energy use. According to it, farm energy audits can find significant energy savings across your dairy with a one- to five-year payback.

For example, if you have a 500-cow dairy, with an estimated annual electricity bill of $20,160, you can potentially save from $2,016 to $7,056 every year through more efficiency energy management. A 1,000-cow dairy that spends $40,320 on electricity each year could potentially save $4,032 to $14,112. I’m sure you can think of ways to spend those saved dollars.

Areas on your dairy that offer some of the best energy efficiency opportunities include:
• Milk cooling
• Ventilation
• Milking
• Lighting
• Electric water heating

The site also includes a quick guide of energy-saving ideas for dairies.

SaveEnergy’s site also helps you decide if an energy audit is right for you. A typical energy audit includes a phone interview and a two-hour farm visit. An on-farm energy audit inventories your dairy’s current systems and equipment, and identifies the cost of energy used. It also provides a detailed recommendation about actions, upgrades and potential savings that could most benefit your dairy.

“Lots of entities, such as electric co-ops and utilities, do energy audits,” says Robert Madeja, a sustainability business analyst with Innovation Center for U.S . Dairy. “But this is specific to dairies.”

The part of the SaveEnergy website you might like best is the page that helps you locate funding for audits or equipment upgrades. Just click on the map on the opening page and then double-click on your state for a list of financial assistance and incentive programs.

“We’ve found that dairies can save 10% to 35% on their utility costs with equipment upgrades,” says Rebecca MacLeod, national energy efficiency liaison with NCRS.

With help from NRCS, the Innovation Center for U.S . Dairy hopes to see more than 700 energy audits conducted on the nation’s dairies by 2020. The results could be far broader than dollars savings and increased efficiency.

“There’s a community impact,” MacLeod says. “More efficient energy use reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and the load on the electrical grid. It helps the whole country by leading us toward energy independence.”

And it can start with something as simple as changing a few light bulbs.

Is Grazing in Your Future?

Oct 05, 2011

New Zealand native Phil Wicks painted an intriguing picture of dairy grazing and the opportunity it holds for many producers during my meeting with him Tuesday at World Dairy Expo.

Wicks, general manager of Livestock Improvement Corporation USA (LIC), said today’s soaring feed costs and volatile markets provide a strong impetus for many conventional producers to consider dairy grazing management. "Grain isn’t going to get cheaper," he said.

There are several reasons why dairy grazing might make sense for a producer. For starters, Wick said he’s seen producers increase their profitability while conventional dairy farmers -– with high capital investments and steep feed bills -- were posting red ink. 

He pointed to Oregon dairy producer Brad Cowan, who successfully transformed his conventional 60-cow dairy into a 1,000-cow grazing operation over a seven-year period. The Oregon coastal climate and rainfall lend themselves to an abundance of perennial ryegrass. 

Cowan’s cows spend much of their time feeding in those pastures. The result? His feed costs in July 2011 were 8% of his milk check. Compare that to many conventional operations, particularly in California, where feed costs account for 50% of dairy expenses.

Today, Cowan’s dairy is made up of Holstein-Friesian/Jersey crosses and purebred Jerseys. Using LIC genetics, the farm produces high-quality heifers used to stock other dairies. The sale of quality stock is expected to become a lucrative part of Cowan’s operation.


Phil Wicks
LIC's Phil Wicks.

"He’s doing very well financially," Wicks said. "Before he ventured into grazing several years ago, Cowan was where a lot of dairy farmers are now. He took the risk."


Wicks also said a grazing operation can start with a low capital investment, which offers young producers an opportunity to start in the business. Case in point: Holly and John Moore, a couple in their mid-20s with 400 cows in New York State. With minimal investment and only one full-time employee besides themselves, the Moores have adopted grazing management and plan to move their farm forward by concentrating on cow breeding. In 10 years, they hope to run three separate 500-cow pastures in their local area.

The Moores won’t be the only dairy producers expanding their grazing operations. "Fifteen percent of U.S. operations will eventually be grazing," Wicks said.

Nearly every state has pasture-based dairies, or even hybrid operations combining both conventional and grazing methods. Wicks’ favorite place for dairy grazing is the coastline of Northern California and Oregon, where the climate lends itself to favorable grass production.

But Wicks acknowledged the reticence of many producers to take the same risk that Oregon’s Cowan took when he converted his dairy to a grazing operation.

First, grazing is a change, and human nature is often reluctant to try something new, Wicks said. People also may see grazing as a regression to long-ago decades when unsophisticated grazing was the norm on farms. In addition, there may be a false impression of what graziers are. They’re not laid-back or slipshod businesspeople. "The successful graziers are very, very smart," he said. "They know it’s not about simply putting cows on grass. There’s a real science to it. Genetics, forage selection and management strategies are important.

"You have to have the right attitude to be successful," he added.

The New Zealand-based LIC expanded its operations to the U.S. two years ago, with Wicks at the helm. It has developed a joint venture with Dairy Farmers of America called Dairy Grazing Services. LIC has a strong history in dairy genetics as well as grazing, but it saw additional potential in the U.S.

"LIC is investing in the U.S. because it believes the U.S. will be the nation that feeds the world," Wicks said.

Dairy grazing operations can be one part of that shining future.

Help with Managing Feed Costs Is Here

Oct 03, 2011

The dairy industry’s businesses are at World Dairy Expo this week, eager to help lessen your dairy’s feed-cost load.

In California and Minnesota, dairy producers are shelling out more than $300 a ton for corn. Pennsylvania dairies are paying $420 a ton for cottonseed. In Washington State, alfalfa hay for milk cows costs $320 a ton, DDGs $270 a ton, and soymeal $430 a ton.
For more than three years, feed costs have been skyrocketing on dairies and, most recently, taking the bloom off of these record milk prices. You would think something could be done to alleviate feed costs’ relentless climb.
In fact, companies large and small have jumped on the bandwagon to find ways to help dairies lessen that load. Like you, they can’t do much to cut the price of corn. But they have been working hard to develop products and services to help you with your feed burden. And hundreds of those companies are here this week at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., eager to share those developments with you.
For example:
·         Valley Agricultural Software’s feed management software, known as FeedWatch, allows you to monitor your herd’s intake, analyze consumption, track ingredients and ration chemistries, reduce feed waste and more. The software works with mixer trucks and wagons or with stationary mixers and delivery trucks. The VAS booth at World Dairy Expo this week is located at EH 4331.
·         In addition to its business of developing and manufacturing liquid feed supplements for animals, Quality Liquid Feeds (at Expo at EH 4330) is funding three sessions this week at World Dairy Expo. The company will sponsor today’s Virtual Farm Tour focusing on Minnesota’s Simon Dairy, its 707 milking cows and its generation-to-generation transition. QLF is also behind Thursday’s Virtual Farm Tour featuring Pennsylvania’s Meadow Vista Dairy and its focus on producing quality forages and implementing best management practices for crop production. With QLF’s support, Dr. Michael Hutjens of the University of Illinois will discuss "Feeding Strategies with Today’s Milk and Feed Prices" at 9 a.m. on both Thursday and Friday.
·         Harvestore’s FeedScan™ Precision Feeding System measures and adjusts dry matter on the spot to help you reach the target set by your nutritionist. It also tests every bucket of feed to the consistency of your TMR.  By measuring forages, grain and other dry-matter nutrients, you can lower the expensive ingredients in your TMR, says Dick Nelles, Ag National Marketing Manager at Engineered Storage Products Company. "FeedScan brings the real-time accuracy of near-infrared technology to the farm versus an off-site laboratory where results may take days," he adds. Harvestore has a large display this week at EH 1201-1304.
·         BASF’s NutriDense® Silage is nutritionally enhanced corn silage developed specifically for efficient milk production. In university studies, cows fed NutriDense Silage have demonstrated a 4% to 8% improvement in feed efficiency, which can result in significant income over feed cost advantages and improved profitability for dairy producers. To learn more, visit its booth at World Dairy Expo in Arena 450.
·        Rice Dairy, Stewart-Peterson, Dairy Gross Margin and First Capitol Risk Management all offer ways to protect your margins with risk management programs that manage income over feed costs. Even multi-faceted Cargill has a risk strategy program called Cargill Direct to help you mitigate your market risk exposure and protect your operating margins.
Plenty of help is out there. At Dairy Today, we’ll do our best to bring it to you -– not only this week but all year long.
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