By Karen DuVall
The extremely wet weather this fall, coupled with political and economic changes, created an especially difficult harvest season for most soybean producers. On top of low prices, farmers faced severe price docks for high moisture content in their beans. According to the Progressive Farmer, usually beans are docked six to eight cents per bushel for five percent moisture damage. This year, deductions were sharply higher, around $1.80 per bushel. That left farmers with no choice but to dry their beans in grain dryers designed for corn.
We called up Chad Martin, energy auditor, to talk about the effects these unusual circumstances had on on-farm energy usage. Chad is a from a fifth-generation family farm in Cass County and has 12 years of experience as an energy auditor at Purdue University.
1. Thanks for talking with us, Chad. Okay, first thing’s first. Exactly what is an energy audit?
Sure. An energy audit is a comparison of the documented performance of an existing dryer to a prediction of what the performance of a new one will be. It takes into account your energy prices and eliminate growing season variables from year to year. It also considers upkeep and maintenance on the equipment. An energy auditor gives you an unbiased third-party view of the cost and energy savings that could come with a new dryer.
2. What other types of energy audits do you do?
I’ve done audits on lighting system upgrades when people switch to LED, several audits for swine buildings and dairy farms… The challenge there is that dairy prices are so low that it’s hard to make capital improvements. Greenhouse production is another one, but I’d say 85% of the audits I’ve done have been with grain dryers.
3. This year, a lot of farmers resorted to drying soybeans. Is this a common practice?
The last time was in 2009, when high moisture in corn was the biggest issue, and a small portion of soybeans were dried, too. We saw older dryers sit empty during the previous drought year in 2008, then used to their maximum in the 2009 rainy year. That brought a lot of hidden efficiency problems to the forefront for farmers. So that was the first wave of energy audits we did for the USDA REAP grants. We partnered up with Prosperity on several REAP grants a few years later.
4. What impact does it have on dryer efficiency?
The dryers are being used for something they’re not designed to do, so they won’t be as efficient. Drying soybeans requires a lower temperature because you’re drying them down two to four percentage points of moisture, not 15 to 20 percent for corn. You’re also running a smaller amount of beans through the dryer at one time, so high capacity dryers have a higher of risk of splitting the beans from agitation. That means a lower-quality bean, which means another price dock. Some farmers have tried in-bin drying their beans as an alternative.
5. What’s on the horizon for grain dryer efficiency?
The biggest development is real-time monitoring that gives you data you can access on your phone or iPad. Once we know the historical record over the past two or three years, that data tells us where things can be improved or areas for maintenance. Sensors in dryer are getting more sophisticated, and data analytics can be used on different types of hybrids. That means you can make improvements without getting a whole new dryer.
As farms get larger, they’re adding not just one but two or three combines so they can get the crops out quicker. They need a dryer that keeps up but maintains its efficiency, especially with spikes in energy. Utility companies are starting to treat farms as small manufacturers. Since all the farms in the area are using their dryers too, they’re hit with demand charges. So we’re becoming more mindful of how we manage electricity. VFDs (Variable Frequency Drives) help motors mitigate those demand charges by running dryers at off-peak times to reduce costs.
6. Is renewable energy becoming more of an option with grain dryers?
Renewable energy with drying is a challenge. Dryers only operate two or three months out of year, and sometimes not at all, so it’s hard to justify the capital investment. Solar is much better suited for a dairy or hog operation because the energy usage variations are more steady and predictable.
A big thanks to Chad for taking the time to talk with us. If you’d like more information about energy audits, you can reach Chad at 765-586-0860 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have questions about funding for your energy efficiency or renewable energy projects, you can reach us here.