U.S. Sustainability Awards: Small Steps, Big Results

October 29, 2013 08:19 PM
U.S. Sustainability Awards: Small Steps, Big Results

Incremental changes lead to big savings over time

By Shirley Chapman

"You can’t get new results with the same old thinking" is the motto that Dan DeGroot lives by when evaluating new technology ideas for Skyridge Farms in Sunnyside, Wash.

"We judge everything on the matters of cow comfort, employee safety, productivity and sustainability," says DeGroot, who founded Skyridge Farms in 1997 after buying out his partners.
At the time, Skyridge was a 1,000-cow dry lot dairy. Today, it is a 3,500-cow freestall dairy that just won an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

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Sustainability awards, Video of Dan DeGroot explaining PLC use on farm

"All of the changes were small, incremental steps that any dairy can replicate," DeGroot says. Over time, those small steps have created a dairy that uses less energy, water and fuel, and the dairy has turned manure into an asset—all while improving cow comfort, milk production, crop production, employee satisfaction and neighbor relations.

Although electric programmable logic controllers (PLC) are routinely used in the state’s fruit industry to control storage climate, applying that technology to a dairy is a new idea. After DeGroot’s electrician showed him what it could do, he was sold. Now, the PLC controls the dairy’s lights, fans, soakers, flush and wash systems. Everything is automatic—no need to worry if someone remembered to turn the soakers or fans on or off.

Along the way, temperature sensors were added. Now the PLC changes fan speed and the amount of time soakers run based on current environmental conditions. In addition, occu­pancy sensors have been installed in the offi­ces, equipment room and employee areas to automatically turn lights on and off. While leaving a light on here and there may not seem like a big deal, DeGroot says all of these small savings add up over time.

In 2003, DeGroot started composting manure. This change greatly reduced the amount of bedding trucked in and eliminated 600 loads of manure hauled to the fields each year. That’s less traffic and dust, and it eliminates a possible manure spill on the road.

In addition, the resulting biosolids create fluffy beds  for the cows in the freestalls. About 150 truckloads of com­post—around 60% of what is produced by the cows—leaves the farm for use in residential and commercial landscapes.

Lagoon water is re-used several times and eventually applied to the fields for irrigation and fertilization. "I no longer buy any commercial fertilizer" for 560 acres of corn and alfalfa, he says.
The lagoon water provides all of the nutrients the crops need, and over time, it has helped improve the soil profile. Applying it with the pivot instead of gravity flow irrigation reduced
water use by about 25%.

The third key step at Skyridge was installing a stand-alone electric feed mixer. "The mixer provides a more consistent meal for the cows," he says. And it delivers those results with less noise and maintenance cost.

Compared to TMR trucks, the cost savings in maintenance alone using a stand-alone mixer with a feed delivery truck is huge. With 1,000 cows, DeGroot had one TMR truck, and his maintenance cost ranged from $4,000 to $5,000 per month. With expansion to 3,500 cows, he would have needed two or three TMR trucks.

However, with the feed mixer and delivery truck, DeGroot’s maintenance cost ranges from $700 to $800 per month. And he has been using the same feed delivery truck since 2003. He used to replace his TMR mixer truck about every three years.

Other incremental steps include:

  • Changing barn lighting from  the metal halide fixtures to more energy-efficient T5HO fluorescent fixtures, resulted in a 75% energy savings.
  • Switching to variable-speed drive motors wherever possible resulted in energy savings ranging from 60% for the parlor and holding pen ventilation fans to 25% for the well pumps.
  • Installing new energy-efficient, high-volume, low-speed fans (HVLS). Monitors installed on the new fans show that they are 92% less expensive to run than the old fans.

Savings in energy, maintenance, fuel and fertilizer are just one side of the equation. Improved neighbor relations, employee satisfaction and comfortable, more productive cows are the other. "Like many dairy producers, Dan DeGroot makes cows his top priority," says Barbara O’Brien, president, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. "By focusing on keeping his herd comfortable, Dan has realized many efficiencies and cost savings.

"His systematic method to improvements can be easily replicated, and his down-to-earth approach is good for the cows, the dairy and the environment," she says.

"The longest journey starts with a single step," DeGroot says. "Everything we have done has been small steps. We evaluate, say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ and we move on." The guiding principle has and will continue to be the cows, the employ­ees and sustainability of the family farm business.

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