Free electricity to run a dairy farm seems like a far-fetched dream, but for John and Rochelle Pekin it is becoming a reality.
The Pekins operate an 445-hectare dairy farm near Simpson in Western Victoria.
After buying the property from John's father and brother last December, the couple expanded the operation.
Before 2006, the operation milked up to 300 cows. Following the purchase of neighbouring land, and the installation of a new rotary dairy and feedpads, the operation increased to 800 milkers.
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With these increases, comes longer milking times, increased staff requirements and increased electricity usage, adding pressure to the never-ending battle to remain profitable and sustainable.
As the demand for electricity to power their operation grew, the family were faced with a new challenge, unreliable power supply.
The dairy was originally connected to a 100-kilowatt transformer. The electricity supply became so unreliable, last year it overloaded and failed 315 times, with failures occurring almost every day. Overloads of the system caused significant disruptions to operations but also lead to damage to equipment.
For the family finding an alternative energy source that could save costs and be reliable became a necessity.
"Dairy farming is highly energy-intensive and relying on grid electricity meant we were at the mercy of rising electricity costs that would impact profitability," Mr Pekin said.
The Pekin family were successful in receiving a grant from the Victorian government to install solar panels on their farm. Solar panels were first installed on the property in June 2021.
Power bills cut on dairy farm
Panels soon littered the roofs of the dairy, calf shed and hay shed, dropping the first power bill by 25 per cent.
The following January an Energy Renaissance battery was installed and connected to the 250-kilowatt solar system, allowing energy to be stored and used at another time.
"Having batteries provides us with energy security, knowing that we can continue to operate in the event of a grid outage. In addition, the batteries can keep our cows being milked twice daily," Mr Pekin said.
The new solar and battery system is expected to reduce the farm's reliance on the electricity grid by up to 95pc and decrease the fuel and energy bill by $70,000 annually.
Although there were some teething issues, including issues linking the battery to the existing power grid, the issues have been resolved, and Mr Pekin is looking forward to seeing the results.
"It's up and running now but I won't know the actual saving until we get the next bill, all the data indicates it will be a big long-term saving," Mr Pekin said.
READ MORE: Power outages hit Vic dairy production
While Mr Pekin has a strong focus on increasing sustainability, he remains focused on productivity and ensuring all investments are profitable.
"The balance is all right but it is something I need to keep an eye on," Mr Pekin said. "We've gone down the road where we want to be sustainable but we're not prepared to compromise production. We are getting around 600 to 650 kilograms of milk solids (per cow), which is up the top end, and we want to use technology that will be sustainable and help that."
The solar and battery system will not just provide reductions in the electricity bill, it will also help reduce the cost of diesel and labour requirements.
Traditionally the irrigation system installed on the farm was solely powered by diesel.
"When we had 300 cows, we had a lot of time between milkings to run that," Mr Pekin said. "Now milkings are closer together and we're often short of labour."
By utilising the solar and battery system, the irrigation system will be run via solar energy.
This innovation will reduce the costs of irrigation but will also reduce the need for labour to maintain and monitor diesel engines on the irrigation system, a major bonus in such a difficult time for the agricultural labour industry.
The results and investments so far are impressive, but for the Pekin family dairy farm it appears they are only just getting started.
Methane reduction trial planned on dairy farm
The pioneering couple is preparing to begin a methane reduction trial project co-ordinated by Commpower Industrial.
For the trial, methane meters will be installed in the dairy and feed additives will be trialled in an attempt to reduce emissions.
"Methane is our biggest emission so we need to get that under control," Mr Pekin said.
The couple hopes they will be able to sell carbon credits in the future, adding an additional stream of income to their operation.
There are also plans for hydrogen motors to replace diesel engines in their tractors.
"We want the whole property to be sustainable," he said. "There's an appetite for carbon-neutral products, it's not going away. The consumers, processors and supermarkets all want it."
As leaders in sustainability the Pekin family realise it is not just for economic considerations, environmental considerations are also important.
"We want to inspire others to do something now because we're making our farm more sustainable, which is better for the environment," Mr Pekin said.
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