Like many dairy farmers, Hatcher Ferguson is continually looking for ways to create a more sustainable farm business. A year ago, he invested in a solar-powered system for his family’s farm in Wirtz, Virginia. Today Burnt Chimney Dairy is self-sufficient in its energy use.
In Virginia, there are limited financial incentives to install solar energy systems. Fortunately, Hatcher was able to take advantage of a tax incentive to install the farm’s solar panels.
Burnt Chimney Dairy’s solar array consists of 1,700 solar panels and was designed to produce 92 percent of the energy for the whole farm, the highest allowable under current regulations. Any energy not used goes back to the grid. The system converts DC energy from the sun to AC energy for use on the farm or to feed back to the utility. The total system is 532.48 kW of DC energy and 390 kW AC energy - a typical house is 8-10 kW, so Burnt Chimney’s system could power between 53 - 66 houses.
The system requires little maintenance or upkeep. “I use an app on my phone to monitor the solar panels and energy production. Even on an overcast day, the panels are able to capture solar energy,” Hatcher said. When there are consecutive sunny days, the farm is able to use net metering to bank the extra power produced. At night, the extra energy created during the day can power some things on the farm when it’s dark. In just over a year, the solar panels have saved 597 tons of carbon dioxide by utilizing the sun for energy.
More than Just Energy
The Fergusons began farming in 1959 and Hatcher is the second generation to operate the dairy. Burnt Chimney runs an efficient operation with a herd of 800 milking cows, crops of corn and barley, and a workforce of 15 employees. Cows are milked three times a day in a double-14 parallel parlor and housed in freestall hoop barns.
Burnt Chimney is working towards improving milk quality and employee relations, and they have a mentality of always finding ways to do things better on the farm. “In the last six months, we have paid closer attention to the little details,” Hatcher said. One practice the farm has initiated is to hold weekly staff meetings. “This gives our employees a chance to tell us what’s going on, what’s working and what needs improvement. It allows our staff to be able to do their job better,” Hatcher said. The farm also has cameras to monitor happenings around the farm, offers employee incentives and provides housing for most of their staff. Turnover is low, and some of their dedicated employees have been with the farm for 10 to 12 years.
Hatcher’s pursuit of environmental sustainability continues in other ways as well. The Fergusons have a manure separator and compost system. The stalls are bedded with recycled manure solids which cuts down on purchasing bedding. They recycle all plastic, cardboard, and metal around the farm, taking it to a local recycling drop-off center. They have also arranged for their chemical manufacturer to take and re-use chemical drums. From generating their own energy and bedding to reducing costs and recycling what they can, the farm illustrates what it means to be a sustainable dairy farm. Burnt Chimney’s goal is to make everything one percent better every day. With all the hard work the Fergusons and their team are investing to make improvements, their efforts are pointing them in the right direction to be sustainable for the long haul.