Oct. 28 2011 06:00 AM

Awareness about power conservation and even production is growing among milk producers

Too cheap for too long, dairy producers have tended to take energy costs for granted. But no more.

If the U.S. gas shortages of 1973 and 1979 were warnings of things to come, $4 diesel is proof that the days of cheap fuel and wasteful ways by farmers are gone. In their place is a growing understanding that they must use less energy, do more with it, and look at ways to produce some of their own.

It's a message that came through brightly at the 11th annual Northwest Harvesting Clean Energy Conference this week in Boise, Idaho. Featured on the program were early adopters who explained why and how energy efficiency makes both sense and dollars. One was a farmstead cheese maker who milks 60 cows. Another was Tony Vander Hulst (pictured here), a partner in Westpoint and Southfield Dairies in Wendell, ID, that milk 5,500.

According to 2010 milk production cost summaries gathered by the dairy accounting firm Genske, Mulder & Co., utilities and fuel and oil combined cost an average of $137.58 per cow per year. That not only makes energy the eighth largest production cost on dairies, but it's also one of the fastest rising.

Improving energy efficiency can be as simple and modest as switching conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents, or as dramatic as replacing milking parlor pumps with variable-speed units. Truly jaw-dropping savings have been seen after utility company audits of irrigation water pumping practices and system reconfigurations.

A handful of pioneers in production of renewable energy also explained why they got started, how they're doing it, and what they've seen so far. Their stories were, frankly, illuminating – both in terms of what is already being done on dairies and what the future may hold for the entire industry.