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Features from the Farm

News from the West Central Research and Outreach Center

Mike Reese, Eric Buchanan, and

George Nelson

West Central Research and Outreah Center

'Greening' energy consumed in agricultural production systems

The agricultural industry consumes an immense amount of fossil-fuel in the production of food, feed, fiber, and energy. From the fuel that is burned in combines and tractors in grain fields, to the electricity that cools milk, to the trucks that bring goods to market, and to the nitrogen fertilizer that nourishes plants; the agricultural industry is captive to large and constant supplies of a wide range of fossil energy.   

Researchers at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) are working together on an initiative to lower energy consumption and introduce renewable energy generation to crop, dairy, and swine production systems. In the first step, the research team is auditing energy consumption within the crop, dairy, and swine enterprises at the WCROC.  Based on the energy audits, energy-optimized systems are being designed, developed, and tested.  

Energy-optimized crop production systems

Currently, there are two project areas that are being evaluated to energy –optimize crop production systems. The first project involves producing nitrogen fertilizer from wind energy. Nitrogen fertilizer is currently produced using natural gas as the feedstock. The use of natural gas to produce fertilizer leads to volatile nitrogen fertilizer prices and a higher carbon footprint of the grain. Our approach is to use wind energy to power a process to generate hydrogen and nitrogen from water and air respectively. The hydrogen and nitrogen are then combined to form anhydrous ammonia. Currently, the Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Pilot Plant at the WCROC is being operated to study the amount of energy consumed per pound of nitrogen fertilizer produced.       

In the second research project, our team is conducting an evaluation of diesel fuel requirements for crop production. An evaluation is being made of crop productivity of an energy-optimized organic cropping system compared to a more tillage intensive traditional organic crop system, and a conventional crop system.    

Energy-optimized dairy production systems

Dairy farms, in particular milking parlors, use large amounts of electricity.  One of the objectives of this project is to produce on-site all the electric and thermal energy needs for the WCROC milking parlor. The energy-optimized dairy system will incorporate a thermal storage tank that can be used to “store” solar thermal, solar electric, and wind energy. The solar and wind system will provide electricity to the milking parlor when needed, but can also drive heat pumps to produce hot water during periods of low demand. Considerable energy is needed to produce hot water in the dairy as it is used for sanitizing the parlor and milk lines. Using the heat pumps is a very efficient manner in which to generate hot water. Once produced by the heat pumps, hot water is then stored in a super insulated tank.   Insulation allows energy to be stored longer in the tank and helps maintain temperature stratification by minimizing heat loss at the tank walls. Designed by WCROC Renewable Energy Scientist Eric Buchanan, the tank is anticipated to be fabricated at a local business. A small wind turbine and solar electric system will be installed near the WCROC milking parlor by the spring of 2015.

Energy-optimized swine production systems

The research team has also begun work to improve the energy systems used in swine production. By measuring the energy consumption within the WCROC swine production systems as well as some commercial barns, we plan to develop retrofit designs that incorporate energy efficient technology and renewable energy generation into conventional swine production systems.  In addition, the Minnesota Agricultural Rapid Response Fund has sponsored research to study improved management of nocturnal swine building temperatures. Decreasing temperatures at night has been shown in past research to lower energy consumption while maintaining swine performance. Our research team will work towards optimizing this practice.  


Conference and Tour

The WCROC will host a conference and tour in June 2015 to present results of the energy-optimized production systems research. Participants will have the opportunity to see the systems in operation and learn the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities the systems present to agricultural producers. For more information, please visit /Research/RenewableEnergy/index.htm.  Conference details will be added to this web-site in the coming months.