Tinkerers in the dairy industry are looking at a new way of keeping cows comfy on warm summer days.
Their research, aided by $48,893 from the Turlock Irrigation District, aims to replace the power-sucking fans in use today with a system that relies on circulation of cool water from underground.
"It's a pretty simple concept, and if it works, it would be a big benefit in keeping cows cool in summer," dairy farmer and TID board member Joe Alamo said Thursday.
The board voted Tuesday to help pay for research at a dairy farm near Tulare over the next month and a half. The money comes from a state-mandated fund for energy efficiency and other "public benefit" efforts, said Nancy Folly, consumer programs division manager for TID.
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The technology was developed by AgriAire Inc. of Chandler, Ariz., and tested at a University of Arizona research center.
The Tulare demonstration will try to cool 52 cows under real-life conditions. The University of California at Davis is helping with the test.
A typical system works like this: Water is pumped from an existing farm well, exiting at 61 to 73 degrees, and enters a device called a heat exchanger beneath a cow's stall. This creates an updraft of cool air that mixes with the warm air above, ideally achieving a temperature a cow likes.
The animals can start to feel heat stress at temperatures in the 80s with zero humidity, according to previous University of Arizona research. Thus, the cooling system could be used from spring to fall and would be especially useful in summer.
Heat can reduce milk output, and extreme heat can kill. More than 3,400 cows died in Stanislaus County during a three-day stretch of 110-degree-plus weather in 2006 — a heavy blow to one of the county's main economic drivers.
Fans and misters
Most dairy farms use large electric fans to keep their cows cool, aided by misters or other devices that spray water. A typical 1,100-cow farm pays an estimated $7,312 a year to power 55 fans, Folly said.
The new system would rely on the electricity already used to pump groundwater for use in water troughs, misters and milking parlor cleaning.
"The energy required to circulate the water would be minimal," Folly said. The installation cost is not yet known, she said.
The system would not use canal water, Folly said, because it is delivered intermittently to irrigate feed crops.
Electricity and other energy costs account for 2 percent to 4 percent of a dairy farm's expenses, said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen in Modesto. Feed, labor and replacement cows are much bigger costs.
Still, cutting power bills is worthwhile for farmers who are slowly recovering from a deep plunge in milk prices.
"Any time you can reduce your expenses, you're ahead," Marsh said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.