Using less energy is the most reliable way to save money and cut costs on the farm. Try these energy-saving strategies to reduce your reliance on energy and improve your homestead’s resilience.
Several years ago, as fuel prices rose and I read that up to half of the average U.S. farm’s expenses could be attributed to energy, I decided to see how our farm compared.
Our energy consumption was only 8% of our total expenses, and that included two delivery trucks that we ran four days a week.
We calculated at the time that diesel fuel could cost up to $10 per gallon, and we’d still be fine. Although we still use a lot of fuel, we’re relieved to know that if everything goes wrong, we’ll be the last man standing.
While this percentage difference does not necessarily mean profitability, it does indicate a degree of resiliency. There are numerous advantages to reducing energy consumption and dependency.
But how do we go about it?
Here are some tips for saving energy use
Reduce the transportation of feedstock
You should never use fuel to transport bulky feeds, such as hay, to your animals. What you can do instead is to transport the animals to the hay. Ideally, we feed hay close to where it was harvested.
We outgrew our single barn many years ago and decided to build a second one. The new one would be built near the old one, clustering the farm’s infrastructure to take advantage of existing roads, water lines, and power.
However, on our farm, all of the farm infrastructures are not centrally located. As a result, we constructed the new barn at the far end of the property.
As a result, when we make hay, we have two storage options, greatly reducing transport energy.
We have close fields to receive the compost generated by the hay feeding when we spread it in the spring. This reduces run time even more.
Decentralized infrastructure that is strategically placed to reduce haul time saves not only energy but also time. Multiple structures located throughout the farm provide additional storage and usage options.
Coordinate your trips across the field
Trips with heavy machinery are costly. Don’t make empty trips and you should load the machinery both when youre going and when your coming back. By doing so you can plan your vehicle movements for maximum efficiency. This is why our pastured poultry farms have onboard or nearby mobile feed storage.
You can carefully plan refills for those times when you need to go out by stocking feed on-site. Alternatively, we can fill multiple feed boxes at once. We can begin, then make a loop around the various containers before returning home.
Saving more than 40 single-function trips and machinery starts over the course of a year adds up to energy savings.
The required trip to town is one of the most energy-intensive activities.
How many errands can we complete in one trip? Can we reduce our trips to town from two to one per week with careful planning?
This alone can save us thousands of dollars in fuel costs each year.
Replace machinery work with human labor
Our lightweight, highly mobile chicken shelters are the most visible example of this on our farm. The most common criticism leveled at this model is that the shelters must be moved by hand.
As a result, people try to use garden tractors or front-end loaders or design larger shelters that necessitate the use of a tractor—anything to avoid using human labor to pull the shelters along.
We have yet to discover an alternative to using machinery that outperforms human labor in terms of time spent per chicken.
When you factor in the cost of machinery, the trip to the field, road maintenance, and the deterioration of numerous tracks across the field, replacing equipment work for human labor can often yield significant energy savings.
We tried bringing firewood in long lengths to the woodpile and cutting it there a few years ago.
Using the front-end loader forks to pick up the long lengths, loading them onto a wood cart and then unloading them is just counterproductive. It’s much more efficient to cut up the pieces of wood in the field and load them onto a trailr by hand.
It is even more efficient with a dump trailer. A little sweat often beats a machine, not always, but occasionally. Find the sweet spots where hands can compete.
The cost of hauling manure and ventilating structures is reduced when animals are kept outside.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) consume massive amounts of energy to run massive fans, haul manure, and heat buildings in the winter.
Pasturing eliminates all of these factors while also providing additional benefits such as sanitation, fresh air, and exercise.
Anyone who owns livestock will undoubtedly want to protect it from predators on occasion.
On our farm, chickens, rabbits, and pigs spend the winter in hoop houses that are oriented lengthwise west to east, to catch westerly breezes.
Rather than one or two large structures, we have five smaller (30 by 120 foot) structures that are designed to operate with natural ventilation. They are the perfect size to get the proper amount of natural airflow through them
Extending the grazing season by increasing management intensity (moving animals every day or two) is the single most important energy and cost saver for herbivores.
The average farmer in our area feeds hay for 120 days per year. Our annual average is 40 days. That means less hay to mow, rake, bale, store, and haul.
Observant readers will notice a pattern emerging here: what saves energy saves time. They complement each other.
Don’t haul water
Pipes are fairly inexpensive, and pumps are cheap too. Water is heavy, and many farmers waste days each year waiting for tanks to fill and carrying water to fields.
I know because I used to do it as well. Then I came across some black plastic pipe, and it was an incredible game changer for us.
Our farm now has 12 miles of 114-inch pipe running through and around every field. A valve every 100 yards provides clean, pressurized water. I bet only a few people out there can justify the energy used to move water in a tank with today’s technology.
One of the permaculture principles is to build on high ground to capture roof runoff and then use gravity to flow it to lower elevations.
I dislike wells because they pierce the aquifer and start with water that must be pumped from inventory located far below ground.
On our farm, we’ve built ponds in valleys on high ground, and our 8-mile system is powered entirely by gravity—no pumps, electricity, or switches. The water will flow as long as gravity operates.
How long can black plastic pipes be used? Maybe 100-200 years?
Although plastic is made from petroleum, the one-time energy cost is negligible when compared to carrying water on a daily basis. You will never regret installing pipe and parking the water buggy, believe me.
Get help from your animals
What can animals do that you would normally do with tools or machinery?
Turning compost with pigs is the best example on our farm. We bed the cows with wood chips and junk hay when we feed hay, creating a fermenting anaerobic pile.
We add whole shelled corn along with the bedding. When the cows return to pasture in the spring, we bring in the pigs. They dig for the fermented corn, flinging the material as they go. This aeration process converts the pile to oxygenated compost without the use of any machinery.
Another example is brush removal using goats rather than machinery. Debugging with chickens, guinea fowl, or ducks allows work to take place in a specific location without our presence. That eliminates the need for us to drive there and get involved in the work.
Use wood for your heating needs
An outdoor wood-fired water stove heats my home. In fact, it also heats a shed, and every year, that single unit saves us $10,000 in electricity and fuel oil.
We save a lot of money each year by replacing purchased energy with our own homegrown solar collectors: trees.
I agree with the homesteader who stated that if the world’s gasoline supplies are reduced to a gallon, it should be processed through a chainsaw.
Don’t get me wrong, I support solar panels, windmills, biogas, hydropower, and any other form of alternative energy. However, the simplest and most significant way to reduce petroleum-based energy is to simply use less energy. The more we can all do that, the more room we’ll have to develop alternatives.
These are just a few tips that can help you save energy on your homestead, and I’m pretty sure that if you take a good look at your homestead, you can find more by implementing the tips listed in this article.
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