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Put Renewable Energy To Work On Your Farm

Put Renewable Energy To Work On Your Farm

How can you use renewable energy on a farm? "You can count the ways, and there are more ways to use renewable energy and to save energy on a farm than many people realize," says Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke.

Francis Thicke, who along with his wife owns and operates Radiance Dairy Farm near Fairfield in southeast Iowa, described his energy efficient dairy farm and its renewable energy systems for 35 attendees at a recent meeting of the Farm Energy Working Group. At Radiance Dairy the 80 dairy cows are milked twice daily and moved to a new grazing paddock after each milking. The farm has 60 paddocks or small pastures.

The cows harvest their own feed, spread their own manure, and enjoy their work, says Thicke. He compared this healthier, more energy efficient system where the cows do all the work to 95% of the cows in the country that are raised in confinements. "In the natural environment such as we have for our cows, it takes less energy to manage the animals than it does to grow crops, harvest the crops, put feed in a silo, haul feed to the animals, collect the manure, and take it back out into the pasture," explains Thicke. He also saves energy by not needing herbicide, purchased fertilizer or pesticides. "The confinement farmers have huge energy inputs for cropping including commercial nitrogen and fertilizer."

Solar energy pumps water to all 60 paddocks where cows graze

Thicke further reduces his farm energy use needs by using several renewable energy systems. Six 125-watt solar photovoltaic panels near a pond pump water into a 4,000 gallon storage tank. The water is then gravity fed into individual watering tanks in all 60 paddocks through a 1" polypropylene pipe buried eight inches underground.  "Even on a cloudy day the storage tank gets full," Thicke says." It just takes a little longer."

The system is blown out for the winter and the cows drink from a creek on their way to and from milking twice a day. The panels were partially funded through a cost share from USDA EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program Read more about Radiance Dairy at

Hot water is provided by solar energy on this farm

Thicke also received a grant for a solar hot water system from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence in fall 2009 to provide hot water for the milking operation.  In summer 2010 he installed four 4 x 10' panels to heat the cold rural water up to 130 degrees where it is stored in two 120-gallon tanks in the milking barn. The hot water is used for clean up in the milking process. NCAT offers information on a do-it-yourself solar hot water pump at

On-farm wind turbine meets farm's electricity needs

Thicke also received a USDA grant for a 33K wind turbine that will produce 60,000 kW/year, which is about what the farm uses. The company selling the turbine wrote the grant. Other renewable energy/energy efficiency components of Radiance Dairy include:

solar electric fences in the back country;

selling milk, cheese, yogurt, cream to primarily local stores and traveling only within a four mile radius of the farm;

saving on gas/diesel fuel to haul hay by purchasing land closer to the farm to grow the hay crop and saving driving time/fuel.

reducing LP usage through the solar hot water heater;

converting his Toyota Prius to a plug-in hybrid using 64 lithium batteries. The car gets 80 to 100 mpg for the first 40 miles or so.

planning to get electric four-wheelers for use on the farm.

Micro-scale Biogas workshop helps reduce LP energy use

To learn more about another form of renewable energy, plant to attend a biogas workshop upcoming in March at Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Farmers, greenhouse growers, and small businesspersons will benefit from this workshop on how to turn small amounts of food waste, unmarketable produce, or manure into biogas that can help reduce propane, natural gas or electric usage. Everyone who attends this 2-day workshop will leave with a small (200 gallon) digester kit, ready to go home and set up their small digester.

When: March 11-12, 2011 (Friday/Saturday)

Where: UNI Center for Energy & Environmental Education, Cedar Falls

Cost: $200 (includes biogas digester kit, book, and CD of resources)

Registration: Contact Rich Dana,, 319-530-6051, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT)

Sponsors: UNI CEEE, NCAT, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

More information

TAGS: Forage
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