Tag Archives: farm

Solar at the dairy: how to crunch the numbers

SolarDairy

I’d love to install a solar system here on the farm but since we use most of our energy in the dark or at sunset, it’s a real challenge make it affordable. I’m really grateful to dairy energy expert Gabriel Hakim of AgVet Energy in Warragul for writing this guest post on how to crunch the numbers!

Energy Audit with Gab

Gabriel Hakim and Wayne check out the dairy during an energy audit back in 2012

With the backdrop of the recent closure of Hazelwood, and continued uncertainties over supply and prices more and more dairy farmers are asking “Can solar work for me?”.

The way electricity is consumed on most conventional dairies – early morning, late afternoon, and overnight – means it is a challenge to maximise the direct benefits of solar.  In southern Australia, most of the electricity generated by photovoltaic panels (PV) occurs between milkings, during the middle of the day.

How this electricity is used has huge implications for the economics of PV.  The three broad options are:

  1. sell all unused generated electricity into the grid;
  2. store unused generated electricity and use it later; and
  3. change the timing of electricity-using tasks so they make use of the electricity as it is generated.

The reality of course, is to deploy a combination of these options. This post explores option 1 for installing solar on an existing dairy with:

  • Twice-a-day milking. 6:00 – 9:30 am and 3:30 – 6:00 pm (includes milk cooling time)
  • 450 milkers calving all year round
  • 40-50 units
  • Conventional cooling (glycol chiller, with final direct expansion cooling in vat)
  • Conventional cleaning (warm pre-rinse, hot wash, hot final rinse) – ~1,600 l hot water/day
  • Average daily electricity consumption 450 kWh (large user)
  • Electricity charges are 22.6cents/kWh and 10.1 cents/kWh (ex GST and after discounts have been applied) for peak and off-peak respectively. Annual spend on electricity is $22,206.71 (ex GST).

How big should the PV system be? 

The optimum size depends on several things such as; the load profile, how much of your consumption you aim to off-set, the available roof space (or ground space), and how much you’re willing to invest.

For this case, let’s choose a 50 kW quality brand PV system. The going price for this roof-mounted system on a tilt frame is $59,545 (ex. GST) net of RECs.  And, from July 1, 2017 the feed-in tariff rate increased to 11.3 cents/kWh.

Whilst the calculations for the economic analysis might be straightforward, the real challenge is making realistic assumptions about power usage.

Unfortunately, many solar systems salespeople don’t have a good appreciation of dairying and I have seen too many instances where the intended outcomes are never realised because of poor or incorrect assumptions.

For the example dairy, the maximum proportion of PV generated electricity that can be consumed directly is 48% because the bulk of the electricity generated is typically between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm, when very little or no equipment is operating.  To increase the proportion of direct consumption would require shifting tasks to this timeslot – option 3, to be discussed in another post.

The PV system

PV system Size 50 kW PV capital cost $59,545
Average annual electricity generation  72,560 kWh Simple payback period 5.8 years

GabrielSolar1Table

Even with 48% of the generated electricity being directly consumed – and 52% being exported – the annual savings are substantial, $10,613 in year 1. The simple payback period for this investment is 5.8 years. Higher tariffs or future price increases would make the payback shorter.

The “take-home” lesson here is that the more you can consume directly the better the financials stack up.

If the PV system was bigger, say 80 kW, you might be able to capture a little more for direct use during the winter months but you will be simply exporting more to the grid. It is still financially attractive but requires more investment (~$95,300) and payback time is extended by about six months.

Financing solar
The financial indicators above assume farmers have the money to fund this investment stashed under the pillow (we all wish it was).

Fortunately, over the last three years or so the financing market has become far more amenable to funding energy related equipment. The number of institutions that offer products targeting this space seems to grow every month.

The Sustainable Melbourne Fund (http://sustainablemelbournefund.com.au/), for example, has broadened its focus to regional areas and is very interested in getting involved in the agricultural sector. They were really impressed by the environmental credentials of the Green Cleaning System I designed a few years back.

A cashflow-neutral investment
Financing an investment such as this can be very attractive as the savings in the electricity bills can be used to service the repayments. By negotiating a low (interest) rate and reasonable term length (5-7 years), these types of projects can become cashflow positive from the very first bill.

If we were to finance the above 45 kW PV system over a 7-year term, the fixed monthly repayments would be $846 equating to $10,152 per year. If we manage to achieve 40% or more direct consumption of the PV generated electricity, then this project would be “cashflow neutral” or even slightly positive from the outset. After seven years, the saving can be banked.

So, “Should I go solar?” is worth thoughtful consideration. The option presented here is the least financially attractive of the three options but still has merit. Ensure that any assumptions made are directly relevant to your situation. Do your homework and don’t hesitate to seek advice.

Thank you, Gabriel, and Milk Maid Marian looks forward to the next installment of solar smarts.

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Filed under Farm, Machinery and equipment

Planning for life at the end of the tunnel

eucolilores

It’s all been about survival for an exhaustingly long time but, now, I’m focused on life at the end of the tunnel.

Oddly enough, an hour of my time spent answering a researcher’s questions about the way we feed our cows was more valuable than any length of time spent on a red velvet couch. It reminded me of our goals, how far we have come and, most importantly, that I have not given up and we are still making progress. Even this year.

As much as my wheezing body will allow, I’m pounding away at the keyboard and in the paddocks working on survival but edging towards something far better. Although my old uni lecturers would decry the haziness of our goals they are crystal clear to me:

  • less stress
  • more time together

What’s needed?

  • greater profitability, so we are less tied to our work
  • greater resilience in the face of increasingly unpredictable seasons and milk price

We have a three-pronged strategy to achieve those lofty aims, all supported with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives neatly laid out in a proper business plan. It’s an invaluable little sheaf of papers that’s proven priceless in a year when it all seemed pointless.

I’ve learnt an important lesson: when you’ve got your head down, it’s more important than ever to look up and keep your eyes fixed on the horizon.

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How Gallipoli put Grandpa on the land

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

My grandfather, Harry, first saw Melbourne on his way to Gallipoli. I imagine it felt like a ticket to a new life after a childhood framed by tragedy.

When his mother died giving birth to his brother, little Harry was left in the care of his Irish grandmother. He worked her hillside farm hard and, at one stage, never left the property for the good part of a year. The stories my own father passed down to me spoke of a Harry abandoned by his father and shown little pity.

When war came, Harry became an ANZAC light horseman and carried water to the front line. My aunt Heather says dysentery “saved him” from the Western front and nearly a year later, he was home and regarded as a man.

In 1917, Harry applied to secure a parcel of land under the soldier settlement scheme. The inspector recommended against it and his report forewarns of a battle too great for a returned soldier.

GrandpaSoldierSettler4cropLoRes

Mr Dermody’s advice made sense. I’ve been there many times and tried to imagine how it must have been 100 years ago. The valley is sweet but the property, known as Yosemite, does indeed reach up “precipitous” faces lined with cattle track terraces. Impossible country to farm with a tractor, nigh-on impossible with a fern hook and crosscut saw.

Although still recovering from dysentery and the psychological damage of war that he called “neurasthenia“, Harry’s ambition is palpable in his own submission.

GrandpaSoldierSettler6crop

Against the odds, Harry made it. And after his first two children were born around 15 years later, he built a new house with his bride, Pearlie, in the foothills down the valley.That is the place I remember when I think of Grandpa. Heather recalls her father wanting to sign up again in 1939 only to be told farmers were to remain on the land. So, she says, he resolved to buy the land we farm now in order to “do his duty and grow more food”. A notion almost incomprehensible in this era of plenty.

It’s to that lonely boy’s courage in the face of battle – both on the shores of Gallipoli and later in the hills of Gippsland – that I owe this farm. I will not forget.

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What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

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Filed under Calves, Climate, Cows, Pastures

Making the wet worthwhile

Not quite monsoon weather

Not quite monsoon weather

I’m writing this post hoping to be embarrassed by calling this a flop of a monsoon trough. Earlier in the week, we were promised 5 inches of rain by now but we’ve clocked up about a tenth of that in five days of drizzle with perhaps an inch or so supposedly delayed in traffic still to come.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, of course!

The gift of a good soaking in summer is precious indeed. We don’t irrigate here so rely totally on what falls from the heavens and our farm is set up to make every drop count. The silver lining of greater climate volatility is more summer downpours. We have sown deep-rooted perennial pastures, including the heat-loving tall fescue and cocksfoot, throughout the farm. These pastures respond almost instantly to rain in summer and increase our resilience to an increasingly tricky climate.

Bring it on!

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Secrets of a happy life revealed and it was here on the farm all along

“If your New Year resolution is to be happier, make your priorities fruit, nature, sun and sleep.”

This simple prescription for a happy life stems from Otago University research reported in the NZ Herald this morning.  Sounds a lot like farm life, doesn’t it?

From all of us here on the farm, have a wonderful 2015!

Before we say goodbye to 2014 though, I’d like to pay tribute to our wonderful fellow Landcarer, Margaret Ferguson, who helped us plant trees this summer and tragically lost her life in a farm accident this month. I still can’t believe this magnificent lady is gone but she would be delighted to see how well our trees have already grown.

The trees arrived in September

The trees arrived in September

 

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

 

We finished planting in the first week of October

We finished planting in the first week of October

 

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

 

Look how much they've already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

Look how much they’ve already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

 

RIP Margaret. We miss you.

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

 

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Filed under Environment, Family and parenting, Farm

Singing in the rain: a pony introduces herself to the herd

Meet our newest family member, Dixie the divine.

DixieYesterday, the cows were in the house paddock for the first time since Dixie came to live with us and they were intrigued to meet her, lining up by the horse paddock and bobbing their heads in astonishment at the strange “brown cow that whinnies”.

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

It was a misty, drizzly morning and while the cows and Dixie were separated by perhaps 50 metres of paddock, the effect was magnetic. Dixie whinnied. The ladies mooed. And so on for a good half hour. Continue reading

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