I'm a big believer in cow comfort," said Sunnyside dairy farmer Dan DeGroot. "Cows are social creatures who like consistency so we milk, bed and feed them at the same time each day."
DeGroot's Skyridge Farms has been nominated for the "Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award" in the second annual round of the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards, which will be presented this April.
DeGroot's nomination was announced this week by the Washington State Dairy Products Commission.
The awards recognize dairy farms for practices that deliver outstanding economic, environmental and/or social benefits.
To provide the level of consistency that cows crave, DeGroot installed a programmable logic controller that runs essential farm operations such as the soaker cooling system for the cows, as well as the barn fans.
DeGroot has programmed the controller so the frequency of the soakers and the fans' speed are temperature sensitive. The higher the temperature, the more they are engaged.
"I like that I'm able to dial in the farm's operations at one controller," said DeGroot. "The computer controls farm systems so our employees don't have to worry about it and can focus on taking care of our cows."
The controller also governs variable frequency drive motors for well pumps, milk pumps and vacuum pumps. The variable drive motors provide enough energy to complete the task, whether it is pumping and cooling the milk or circulating water around the dairy. Typically, energy savings have ranged from 25 to 60 percent.
Since Skyridge Farms was built in 2003, DeGroot has studied every aspect of his dairy, not only looking to make it more energy efficient but to enhance cow comfort. That included reconfiguring lighting in the milking parlor and holding pen.
To make sure he was on the right track, DeGroot consulted with the Washington State University Energy Program.
"We do a comprehensive energy audit looking at every energy system on a dairy - everything from lighting and ventilation to milk cooling and water heating," said Tony Simon, energy engineer with the WSU Energy Program.
Simon sees energy audits and energy saving programs as an up-and-coming trend. "Dairy farmers are engaged as stewards of the land and energy use is part of that equation. The end result is that there are many energy reductions that can significantly improve the bottom line."
DeGroot retrofit the barn lighting switching from 400-watt metal halide fixtures to T5 florescent lighting. The new lighting system removed shadows and offered a more even and pleasing spectrum of light, which improved his employees' work environment. The new system also reduced the energy needed to light the barns by over 50 percent.
Cows generate heat andheat rises, so DeGroot installed fans in his barns that prevent air stagnation and assist evaporative cooling with soakers.
"Dan uses ceiling fans that push a lot of air at lower speeds," explained Simon. "For the amount of power used you get more air flow, which helps cool the cows in the summer."
The WSU Energy Program conducted energy audits on 21 Lower Valley dairies in 2012.
"Most dairies in our area are making similar upgrades," said DeGroot. "We are always looking for answers so we can do the right thing."
DeGroot's efforts to improve cow comfort have also yielded benefits for his 35 employees. Since the cows' lives are calm and tranquil, they are easier to handle. Also, the cows are healthier, so there are fewer exceptions employees have to manage. "Our milkers can focus on milking and don't have to deal with distractions," explained DeGroot.
While cow health and comfort is a major concern, DeGroot also pays attention to the environment.
Composting on the farm reduces hauling costs and saves money on cow bedding. That compost is also sold to nurseries. Approximately 12,000 to 13,000 yards of compost is sold each year to Organix and shipped out of Yakima County - often ending up in urban landscapes.
In addition, DeGroot implemented a self-sustaining recycling program for plastics ranging from ag-bags, twine from hay bales and corrugated packaging. That material goes to Northwest Ag Plastics in Moxee.
"There's no one big thing that we've done that's made the difference," concluded DeGroot. "It's been a lot of little things that have significantly improved our operations.