Brandon Diedrich draws a step-by-step diagram of his farm’s corn-handling process for his energy auditor, Dave Warrington. In two hours, they’ll tally every fan, pipe, auger, electric motor and bin as they “follow the grain” from unloading to final storage.
The energy audit is a key piece of the Northwood, IA farmer’s application for a USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant, which he hopes will cover 25% of a new corn dryer and related upgrade costs.
Warrington, the energy auditor, color-codes details on equipment age, horsepower, grain-handling capacity and use patterns so he can cross-check them with Diedrich’s electrical and LP-gas bills. With years of experience doing audits for Alliant Energy, he’ll tease out Diedrich’s energy use per bushel of corn.
Diedrich’s chances of winning the REAP grant look good to Warrington: “His dryer is 35 years old, and with the other improvements, he’s probably looking at a 35% or better energy savings.”
The savings won’t come solely from replacing Diedrich’s old MC 975 with a larger-capacity, low-temperature Grain Handler dryer. The audit’s detailed analysis will help him remove other system bottlenecks and replace other high-energy users like his collection of transfer augers.
Drying corn has so many different variables, explains Warrington. “When we show farmers audit results, the most common reply is, ‘I should have done this 10 years ago.’”
Diedrich estimates that a combination of factors will “save me more money than a new combine.”
The next five years could see a lot of old, inefficient dryers replaced as farmers tackle high production costs, Warrington says. However, “too many farmers don’t look at the grain dryer as long as the old one is still running. If you never do any energy-efficiency work (with a REAP grant), you’re just paying for your neighbor’s new dryer.”
North of Perry, IA, Ron Heck is already reaping the benefits of the energy audit he did two years ago with The Energy Group.
A surprise for Heck was how the audit helped him think through all the grain-handling components to “right-size” his process and eliminate problems that slow things down.
“It takes the same electricity to turn things on whether your dryer is full or only half-full. Then, going from a dryer that runs 1,000 bu./hour to the new dryer running 2,000 bu., it means that every other motor runs half as long.
Heck’s audit found that his grain leg was too small for top efficiency.
“I’m convinced it pays farmers to stop once a year to think about how we get this stuff to work better. It helped me right-size the whole process to a larger system that runs fewer hours,” Heck says. “I hadn’t realized how much money I would get back through improved efficiency.”
A grain-dryer audit is just one of several areas where you can save significantly on input costs by improving energy efficiency, says Mark Hanna, Extension ag engineer for Iowa State University’s Farm Energy Initiative.
The three biggest energy users on grain farms are tillage, grain drying, and nitrogen fertilizer, but growers can also save by ballasting tractors for energy efficiency, effective tractor maintenance, and a “shift up, throttle back” approach that maintains tractor power while lowering fuel consumption.
As with the audits, Hanna urges growers to begin by researching where their energy goes and what it costs.
“Energy isn’t the highest-cost farm input, but it’s the one you can most easily affect by your management decisions,” he says.
A simple example he cites is the use of ventilation in grain storage – an essential process but one that can burn up dollars when fans run more than needed.
“Energy conservation isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ business,” he continues. “For example, there’s a direct correlation between the amount of tillage and your energy use, but less tillage can also mean more management, more thinking about all the implications. You have to consider the whole picture.”
A major resource for growers intent on saving money on energy is the Farm Energy Initiative website at http://farmenergy.exnet.iastate.edu/, which Hanna points out is designed to serve farmers in general, not just Iowa agriculture.
“We are trying to provide information that will be widely applicable for grain farmers,” he says, noting that other universities like Wisconsin and Michigan State are developing complementary energy-conservation guidance for farm sectors like dairy.
An additional resource is the Farm Energy Log, a downloadable Excel spreadsheet for tracking energy use, available at http://farmenergy.exnet.iastate.edu/?page_id=11  under Energy Consumption.
The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP)
Each state gets an annual allocation to fund REAP projects, and all applications are processed in the state where the project is located. If one state fails to use its full REAP allocation, leftover funds are pooled at a national level, allowing states with unfunded applications to compete for the remaining dollars.
Among farmers, the most popular REAP projects have been improvements in grain-drying energy efficiency, but REAP funds can also be used to install turbines for hog-confinement cooling fans, on-farm wind turbines (the second most popular use), solar or geothermal technology.
“The number of REAP applications shows the need,” says Shannon Chase, business and cooperative programs director for the Iowa Rural Development office. “It’s an over-subscribed program.”
Growers interested in exploring a REAP grant should contact their local rural-development staff.