Energy savings in the Watercourse

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 “Up until NSW Farmers visited our farm for their energy innovation program we had been focused on solar as a technology to reduce our energy bills. The subject of tyre set up and driving technique came up and we realised that our attention to these basics had been relaxed over the last 2 years or so and with a little effort and no cash upfront we could save almost $4,000 a year compared with about $500 a year from solar.”

Sarah and John Greer run a mixed farming operation on the black soil of the Watercourse area just outside of Moree. Their farm consists of around 4,000ha of land dedicated to a variety of cereal crops, and nearly 2,000ha of pastoral land for grazing their herd of 200+ beef cattle.

A major portion of the farm’s energy use can be attributed to the diesel required to sow, spray and harvest crops. In total, the Greers are using around 150,000 litres of diesel each year to accomplish the required farming tasks. The Watercourse is a flood plain, and the farm is run as a dryland operation, without any major man-made irrigation inputs.

Rising costs and farm reaction

Over the past decade, as costs for electricity and diesel continued to rise, Sarah and John made decisions about the farm’s operations to maximise crop yield and minimise energy expenditure. To this end, the Greers invested in a new disc seeder, which rolls through the soil with less friction than their old tyne seeder and allows them to seed crops at a shallower soil depth. They also adopted no-till as a method for weed control, which minimised the number of passes across the property and left untilled soil to retain additional moisture so that less rainfall was needed to provide adequate crop water.

Diesel costs total around $200,000 a year with electricity at around $25,000, which, while significantly lower than total diesel costs, is still a significant portion of the annual budget.

Birrah’s energy profile

The Birrah farming operation requires around 150,000 litres of diesel fuel for activities such as sowing, harvesting and spraying. The farm is relatively self sufficient as harvesters and excavators on site optimise the harvest as well as the sowing schedule.

The farm’s largest energy expense is diesel associated with the farm’s tractors and harvesters.

Energy cost reduction opportunities

The NSW Farmers' Energy Team examined energy bills and toured the property to learn more about equipment use and to see what energy monitoring was in place. The team found the following energy efficiency and cost saving opportunities.

Sarah and John workshopped these opportunities and considered what they would like to achieve given their expansion plans. ”We want to remain viable which means aquiring an additional 3000 acres and keeping our volume close to an ‘average’ farm so we benefit from economies of scale . We need to bring our diesel use down from 3.5 litres to 2.5 litres per hectare when we’re planting and we will make the returns much more attractive,”says John.

Given these plans, monitoring fuel use and adaptive driving were considered higher priority strategic opportunities while quick wins with coolroom controls and off peak pumping were implemented immediately.


Cool room set point (quick win!)

It had been a hot summer’s day when the new cool room was installed and the temperature set point was 0.5°C upon installation instead of a typical running temperature of 3 or 4 degrees (always check your local supplier for advice on minimum temperatures for foodstuffs). For 2 years at 3 degrees cooler than required the Greers used approximately 4 percent more energy at a cost of $300-400 per year depending on use, stock levels, ambient temperature etc.

Additionally the cool room was located on the south western side of the house, a reasonable orientation although direct sunlight on the outer roof skin would increase the heat load on the cooling system and result in additional 2 percent in running costs.

A flick of the dial up to 4 degrees and the savings were pretty well guaranteed.

You can find more information on recommended temperatures for food storage by visiting this temperature guide

Time-of-use (quick win!)

The main electricity account was being billed on an ‘anytime tariff’ where the same price per unit of electricity is charged regardless of time of use. Because the Greer’s used a lot of electricity at night and on weekends for their bore, switching to a ‘time of use’ tariff saved them over $5,000 per year and all that was required was a phone call to the electricity retailer.  Finally, the Greers have altered the time they turn on their domestic bore pump for watering the garden, as well as for  the pool pump so that this pumping occurs during off peak. The savings are over $1,000 per year whilst still maintaining a green garden and a clean pool.

Energy discount (quick win!)

In addition to switching to a time-of-use tariff, the Greers realised that they could save on their power by applying for a group buying discount through their membership with NSW Farmers. This provided them with an additional 19% discount on the consumption component of their bill, equating to savings in the order of $1,600 p.a.

Group discounts of this type can be obtained through membership in various industry bodies or, in some cases, by simply asking and negotiating with your retailer. For more information on strategies to obtain good rates from your electricity retailer visit our information paper ‘Effective energy purchasing - Electricity’.

New reflective paint coat on petrol storage tank (quick win!)

Evaporation losses from petrol (gasoline) tanks can be significant and worsened by high temperatures, exposure to direct sunlight, and inadequate caps. The Greers invested on a bit of reflective white paint and gave their tanks a new coat. As shown in research from the University of Nebraska in the table below, this is expected to reduce monthly evaporation losses by more than 1 percent and could equate to savings of $100 or more in reduced petrol wastage per year.

Solar PV

The Greers’ homestead uses moderate amounts of power through day and night which means that a portion of this power can be offset using solar photovoltaics. The Greers therefore installed a 15 kWp ground mounted solar PV system.

It is expected that this system will allow them to save around 2,000 to 3,500 kWh per quarter (equating to yearly savings of up to $4,800).

Set up and driving technique key to less fuel per hectare

The Greers have begun a journey to change their ballast set up when switching from sowing to spraying to optimise wheel slip (see ‘Monitoring wheel slip to achieve fuel efficiency).

Adaptive driving will begin with a comparison between operators to detect and understand any variation. This measure alone can sometimes improve fuel use, as drivers become conscious of the goal to save fuel and make adjustments accordingly such as reducing throttle settings and optimising gear selection or tilling depths while still maintaining strike rates or other important yield indicators.

“We had got into a set and forget mentality with our new tractor 2 years ago. We now realise ballast adjustments and more attention to tyre pressures and throttle settings over different country and applications will deliver cost savings.”

Savings calculated

Changing the domestic pumping schedule, controlling the air conditioning (HVAC) reducing temperature set points and adding solar PV to the homestead has saved the Greers over $5,000 a year. The journey to save diesel could return 5 percent conservatively, putting $6,000 in the Greers’ pockets ready to spend on that annual holiday to the coast!

If John and Sarah can reach their target of 2.5 litres per hectare (down from 3.5) they will save a massive $60,000 per season!  

For starters, with setup refined and adaptive driving there is $7,500 readily available.

If all opportunities are implemented, savings of around 5 percent in overall energy use are possible.

Energy efficiency measures deliver savings in the short to long term

John and Sarah, with the assistance of NSW Farmers’ Energy Innovation Program will continue to monitor fuel use to maximise Birrah’s energy efficiency.

Over the short term, in addition to monitoring fuel use and set benchmarks, diesel fuel savings can be achieved by ensuring that tractor tyres are adequately inflated, and that the ballast setup of tractors is optimal for critical operations. The Greers are also in the process of installing an additional timer on their irrigation bore so that they can maximise the savings available through load-shifting and their time-of-use tariffs.

Long-term opportunities include examining the potential to use biogas or biofuel sourced from local on-farm waste or nearby agricultural operations. Such opportunities require a higher level of investment and may not be cost effective currently.  However their development should be monitored. Battery technologies are improving and may be suitable for Birrah given their relatively small and consistent energy load.


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