Midwestern poultry farmers cut bills in half with new heating system

Maintaining a tropical temperature for his turkeys, even through a Nebraska winter, used to cost Bill Bevans in the neighborhood of $60,000 annually. Not any longer.

He estimates that he’s cut that bill in half since he became one of the first poultry farmers in the country to install a waste-heat recovery system developed by a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“I’m a total fan,” said Bevans, who four years ago began installing the system in a few of his barns and intends to put it in a few more. “It works very well.”

Yun-sheng Xu, an associate research professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia, devised a heat-exchange technique to transfer the warmth from the exhaust exiting a poultry house to the fresh – but often extremely cold – air coming in. A study by the USDA found that the system can hike the temperature of the incoming air by 40 or 50 degrees.

Poultry houses, generally at least 18,000 square feet in size, typically lose about 80 percent of their heat “because they’re constantly bringing in fresh air and blowing out warm air,” said Gary McKinney, who was hired in May to serve as the chief executive officer of Heartland Farm Energy in Boonville, Missouri, which markets the system.

And while the air coming in for several months each year can be around freezing or below, it often has to be heated to as much as 75 degrees, and in the case of newborn poults, to 92 or even 95 degrees.

Turkeys, especially the young poults, don’t thrive with cold drafts blowing about them.

“They’ll group up and sit there, not eat and drink and don’t do well,” Bevans said.

McKinney estimated that to date, the company has sold a few dozen systems. But with 100,000 large confinement poultry barns across the country, including tens of thousands in the Midwest, he sees enormous potential for future sales and additional energy savings.

“Reducing fuel use by 50 percent in thousands of barns has tremendous benefit as far as carbon reduction,” he said, adding that a poultry barn uses roughly 25 times as much energy as the typical single-family dwelling.

McKinney said that two U.S. Department of Agriculture funds are available to pay at least part of the cost. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), available to farmers across the country, typically will pay about 25 percent of the cost, he said.

In August, the USDA agreed to make its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds available in just a few states: Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. McKinney said EQIP will pay between 75 and 90 percent of the total cost, and that his company finances the remainder for one or two years.

“They have no out-of-pocket expense,” he said. “Their payments to us essentially equal their energy savings.”

Because EQIP funds are part of the farm bill, which will be subject to Congressional debate and renewal next year, McKinney said, “We’ve been telling growers, ‘We hope it’s back, but we encourage you to take advantage of it while it’s available.’”

Payback time depends on the climate. In Missouri, McKinney put it at about two years, but it could be closer to a few months in states like Iowa and Minnesota.

Heartland started working with large poultry processors – Tyson and Cargill – a few months ago, in hopes that they would add the systems to the protocol for their growers. Although Cargill could not be reached for comment, it did install the system in 2016 in some barns belonging to one of its growers in central Missouri. Bill Dicus replaced his 22-year-old heaters at the same time that Cargill paid for the heat-exchange system in his brooder barn, which he maintains at 95 degrees most of the year.

Together, he said, “They cut my propane use by 60 percent.”

Bevans, who has the system on all three of his brooder barns that house the newborns, said it’s so effective he thinks he’ll put it on his eight “grower” barns, where the turkeys spend most of their lives starting at about five weeks of age. Those can be kept at around 75 degrees.

He is pleased not only with the temperature control and energy savings, but the reductions in humidity as well that lead to healthier birds and less need for antibiotics.

Although he hasn’t found a lot of interest among the few poultry-growers in Nebraska, he said some producers in frigid Minnesota are considering the system.

“Absolutely, I told the Minnesota guys, ‘It’s even better for you.’”

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