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Solar Panels Can Provide Energy for Dairy Farms, Comfort for Cows

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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University of Minnesota Assistant Professor and Extension Organic Dairy Management Specialist Brad Heins and graduate student Kirsten Sharpe used a video to share some of the results from research regarding the benefits of solar panels on dairy farms. (Image from West Central Research and Outreach Center video)

While I have never a milked cow despite growing up on a farm, the three previous generations of my family were all dairy farmers. They had a small farm just outside of Omaha and over the years they milked Shorthorns, Guernsey and Holstein cattle.

About the time I came along, the dairy cattle were replaced by beef cattle on the farm.

I remember older family members talking about when electricity came to the farm and how much their lives changed because of this advancement. Electricity allowed them to produce more milk: Power permitted refrigerated storage milk tanks and later a pipeline system which kept the milk cool and safe from contamination.

Of course, today's farms depend on electricity to run just about every aspect of their businesses, whether it is grain, dairy or other livestock.

Some farmers even produce their own electricity to help meet their needs, whether from solar, wind or manure sources.

Research from the University of Minnesota on solar panels on dairy farms is leading to some interesting results. The panels produce electricity to run the farm, but also provide shade for the dairy cattle -- thus improving cattle comfort.

A 30-killowat solar-powered system is in the pasture of the rotational grazing system at the West Central Research and Outreach Center. The center is located in Morris, Minnesota. According to University of Minnesota assistant professor and Extension Organic Dairy Management Specialist Brad Heins, the system provides shade for the center's milking herd and energy for the milking parlor.

Using the solar panels along with small-scale wind energy, as well as a heat reclamation system, the 300-cow dairy at the research farm has a goal of zero net energy. The farm is working with the University of Minnesota Morris (UMN) to put up a 200-kilowatt system in the future that the dairy will use as shade for its cows while providing energy for the school.

Heins and his team, which includes graduate student Kirsten Sharpe, studied the positive effects the solar panels' shade had on the cows. They discovered a half-degree Fahrenheit decrease in internal body temperature of cows that had access to the solar panels compared to cows without access.

The panels had a positive impact on cow comfort, Heins said.

The researchers have also monitored four other dairy farms for the past 1 1/2 years. They hope to continue to learn how efficient farmers are with their energy usage and identify opportunities to expand renewable energy.

The research farm and Minnesota Extension holds field days for farmers and industry. They have visitors from across Minnesota, as well as across the nation.

If you can't visit the research farm, check out its videos on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/….

To read the entire University of Minnesota Extension report on solar panels and dairies, go to https://extension.umn.edu/….

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

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