During the winter season, producers often focus on energy expenses. But for many, this is an expense they bear rather than an expense they manage.

One reason it’s so difficult to manage energy expenses is that few producers have a basis for comparing their expense with others. At production meetings and during coffee shop discussions, daily gain, mortality and feed-conversion targets are the typical topics. I suspect few of you had discussions targeting energy expense.

To start, you need some idea of what’s “normal,” and the University of Minnesota offers a good resource in its farm management data set, which you can access at porkmag.com/facilities. While the pork producer data in this series is primarily southern Minnesota based, it can still give Midwest users insight into  managing energy inputs.

Just as feed-conversion comparisons require some idea of dietary fat amounts, energy-expense comparisons require some idea of energy products’ (mostly propane and electricity) relative cost. The southern Minnesota data-set reports are in dollars per pig produced, not in gallons of propane or kilowatt hours of electricity. The good news is that propane costs were relatively stable from 2004 to 2007, and after a jump in 2008 they have returned to more traditional levels.

For the 2004-through-2007 tax years, producers in this data series report a fuel and oil expense of $1.43 per pig for wean-to-finish facilities and 49 cents per pig for breed-to-wean units. Utilities (electric and telephone) were $1.04 per pig for wean-to-finish buildings and $1.03 per pig weaned for breed-to-wean units. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to sort out tunnel-ventilated wean-to-finish facilities from curtain-sided units in this data. In my experience, tunnel barns have a utility expense of $1 to $1.25 per pig, while curtain barns are 35 cents to 50 cents per pig.

Total energy costs (fuel and oil, plus utilities) for wean-to-finish buildings should run around $2.50 per pig, and propane costs near $1.20 per pig, with proper adjustments for tunnel versus curtain-sided barns.

Another useful rule of thumb came to me from Jay Harmon, agricultural engineer, Iowa State University Extension. He cites a standard of 2 gallons of propane per pig space for central Iowa wean-to-finish facilities. I know of southern Minnesota production facilities that average 2.25 gallons per space per year.

Clients often ask me to review their barn management to reduce energy expense. My list includes:

  • Over ventilation, either because the minimum fan(s) in stage 1 is too large or the controller is set incorrectly for the variable-speed fan(s) installed.
  • Furnace settings in the controller are incorrect, leading to the ventilation system increasing speed every time the furnace runs.
  • Stage 1 ventilation operating in empty facilities.
  • Emergency override thermostats incorrectly adjusted.
  • Preheat hallways at farrowing and nursery sites operated above 45° F.
  • Minimal winterization of unused fans.
  • Curtains that sag when closed, have holes or have bad end pockets.

Note that in the list I mentioned furnace operation. Builders and producers tend to install large furnaces in production facilities with the goal of never having to worry if the furnace is large enough. Consequently, furnaces installed in production facilities in central Missouri or southeastern Indiana often are the same size as those in central Minnesota facilities.

The net result is greater temperature variation due to the rapid temperature rise every time the furnace runs. Often this triggers the ventilation system to respond by increasing its rate to remove excess heat generated in a short time. A good rule in furnance sizing is it’s big enough if it shuts off on the year’s coldest day. The longer a furnace runs per heat cycle, the more uniform the temperature is in the facility.

Furnaces are often sized based on the heating needs during power washing when the facility is empty and the stage 1 ventilation system is operating to remove the steam. Once pigs are back in the facility, they contribute heat. In the case of young pigs, while they don’t produce much body heat, the heat lamps or propane brooders contribute a considerable amount.

Many furnaces installed in production facilities are variable output. They have a valve located between the gas-control valve and the flame (always a blue valve) that can be adjusted to vary the furnace’s BTU output. When a facility is empty, it’s logical to turn this valve full open. However, once pigs are in the facility, zone heaters are operating or the pigs are generating more body heat, you can adjust the output setting lower.

So rather than bearing high energy costs, some adjustments can make them manageable expenses.

Mike Brumm, is president of Brumm Consultancy.  He can be reached  via e-mail at  mbrumm@hickorytech.net.