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Shade and energy: solar panels used as shades in grazing pasture

December 4, 2019

Adapted from article published in AnSci Connection, the U of M Department of Animal Science newsletter

Brad Heins and student with cows under solar panels
Brad Heins, assistant professor and U of M Extension organic dairy specialist, and Kirsten Sharpe, graduate student.

Cow comfort. An industry term that we hear all the time, but how to achieve that perfect balance of comfort and practicality is a debated topic. However, for grazing herds, Brad Heins, U of M assistant professor and Extension organic dairy management specialist, might have found just the right answer. Heins and his team, including graduate student Kirsten Sharpe, installed a 30-kilowatt solar powered system in the pasture of their rotational grazing system at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. The system provides shade for their milking herd and energy for the milking parlor.

In order to identify the positive impact of the shades on the cows, Heins and Sharpe monitored the rumen internal temperature. They wanted to determine if the solar panels decreased heat stress in cows. They found a half degree decrease in internal body temperature of cows that had access to the solar panels as shades as compared to cows that did not have access, showcasing the positive impact to cow comfort.

Using solar and small-scale wind energy, as well as a heat reclamation system, the 300-cow dairy has a goal of zero net energy. They also are working with the University of Minnesota Morris for a new solar-powered system. They will be putting up a 200-kilowatt system that the dairy will use for shades for the cows while grazing and all the energy will be used by the University.

Heins has also been monitoring four other dairy farms for the past year and a half in order to learn how efficient the farms are with their energy usage and identify opportunities to expand renewable energy.

To help highlight this work, the WCROC and Extension hold field days for farmers and industry alike. They have had visitors from not only Minnesota, but across the nation and on YouTube. Watch one of their videos at https://z.umn.edu/cowsolar

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