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Striving to be efficient is key to future

How are you fixed for energy? And no I'm not referring to your vitality and readiness to jump up and go. Rather, I refer to the energy which powers machines, milks cows, cools milk, cooks food, propels cars, heats and lights our farm buildings and homes.

Availability and affordability of energy is vital to our well-being as individuals and as a nation. Regrettably, over the past decade or so, Ireland's electricity costs have gone from one of the lowest across the EU to one of the highest. So energy is expensive and fossil fuel energy is finite. Energy is a serious issue and farming needs a lot of it.

A survey of farmer attitudes on energy efficiency, reported by Teagasc's Barry Caslin, showed that more than 80pc of farmers were unable to deal with the issue or lacked confidence in managing energy costs or of controlling their carbon footprint.

So I conclude that energy saving is a bit like virtue – we are all in favour of it but few of us practice it.

That is why I was interested in a conference last week which was devoted to 'Energy Use in Agriculture'. The conference was organised by Teagasc and supported by the Farming Independent, Macra Na Feirme and SEAI (the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland).

Teagasc has studied energy-saving options on farms and conference speakers looked at energy efficiency in tillage, in dairying, and in pig and poultry units. Details of these are reported by Caitriona Murphy on page 12.

The conference took place on the day after the Budget. Interestingly, Shane McEntee, Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, who spoke at the conference, suggested that farmers could recoup the €1,000 lost through tax changes, etc, in the Budget, by practicing energy saving in their home and business.

McEntee was particularly impressed by woodchip and wood-pellet boilers which he has seen saving up to €1,400 per year in oil.

The conference also looked at alternative micro-energy supply technology, and here solar panels (for either hot water or electricity) very definitely got the thumbs down.

Enthusiasm for small wind turbines and heat pumps was also muted, although Reuben Higgins, a Co Sligo dairy farmer, was happy with his 15kW wind turbine.

I have the impression that oil and energy prices are scurrying way ahead of inflation but Des Murphy of Kovara Energy Consultants said that, long term, this is not so.

On a graph from the early 1970s to date, only from 1979 to 1986, again from 2005 to 2009 and again in 2011/12 did the oil price rise much above the CPI (Consumer Price Index). During the 1990s and early 2000s electricity, oil and gas was priced under inflation. And it's no coincidence that the Irish economy prospered over these years.

After an examination of a range of energy sources for Irish farmers, including wind, solar, gas and heat pumps, Des Murphy concluded that night-rate electricity was easily the most competitive option.

Mind you, he did not include Shane McEntee's timber in this energy comparison.Heat pumps (which operate in the opposite manner to a domestic fridge) got a better verdict from Teagasc's Ger McCutcheon.

In a survey of energy use on pig farms, Ger encountered a farrowing unit where the installation of heat pumps was paid back in 1.6 years.

In my own home, I constantly rant about turning out lights, closing doors and suggest wearing an extra jersey as an alternative to turning up the central heating.

Speakers at the Teagasc meeting suggested that similar "low hanging fruit" energy savings can be made on the farm. One of these is to simply turn off the tractor engine when it is not actually working.

In time, I reckon that last week's Teagasc conference will be seen as a milestone towards greater awareness of energy savings on farms. The papers will be available on the websites of Teagasc and SEAI.

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