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Kibler Farms Cools Its Cows with Solar Energy

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WARREN, Ohio – During the throes of the summer, the temperature inside the free-stall barn at Kibler Dairy Farms Inc. can become oppressively hot, creating the need to run 60 fans without let-up to keep its dairy cows cool.

That led to excessive energy bills, said the owner of the farm, Garry Kibler Sr., who decided to reduce the expense by installing solar panels on the roof of the barn.

“We looked into solar power, and we decided that it’s the simplest way for us to invest some money and save money,” Kibler said.

Moreover, it positions the farm for future growth. “We started in 1910, and we expanded the farm in 1996. We went from 100 cows to about 300 at that time,” he noted.

The free-stall barn is the most energy-intensive operation at the farm, Kibler said. The addition of the solar panels could reduce energy bills during peak summer demand by half, or about $4,000 a month.

Elected officials, members of the Kibler family, representatives of the Dairy Farmers Association of America, and executives from Third Sun Solar, the project contractor, were on hand Tuesday to show off the new improvements.

“The market in all of the segments is growing,” said Michelle Greenfield, CEO of Third Sun Solar, based in Athens, Ohio. “We did a record number of residential installations last year and our agricultural sector is certainly growing.”

Greenfield said her company has established a partnership with the Dairy Farmers of America and recognizes that farmers understand the importance of using energy from the sun to reduce and manage utility expenses.

The cost of manufacturing solar panels has dropped by more than half because of worldwide demand, while technology has helped increase efficiencies in converting energy from direct current, or DC, to alternating current, or AC, for residential and commercial use.

“We’re also looking at how we can gain efficiencies on the soft costs – the installation costs, the cost of permitting, and the cost of interconnecting with a utility,” Greenfield said. “Our company has been part of natural study groups to bring those soft costs down.”

Kibler Farms is among the first farms in the Mahoning Valley to adopt solar technology, Kibler noted. The free-stall barn’s roof is covered with 480 solar panels with room to add more.

Half of the panels are affixed to the western side of the roof while the other half are placed on the eastern side to maximize the sunlight stored in the solar array, Kibler added.

Jarrod Starr, commercial and agricultural solar consultant for Third Sun Solar, said operations such as the Kibler farm are energy intensive and commodity prices remain volatile.

“Adding solar in helps stabilize your operating costs,” he said, “which is very valuable to farmers and agricultural producers in general.”

Third Sun Solar has modified more than a dozen Ohio farms of varying sizes with solar arrays — four are dairies such as Kibler. “We’re looking at other operations as well including apple orchards, swine operations – wherever energy usage is high,” he said. “It’s a very attractive asset for any farm or business owner to have, as well as homeowners.”

At Kibler, most of the energy is used to keep the fans in operation so the animals remain comfortable, said Garry Kibler Jr., the fourth generation to work on the family farm.

“There are 60 fans running 24 hours a day during the summer,” he said. The farm owns more than 300 milk-producing dairy cows and another 400 young stock.

Although the farm uses a set of automated milking machines, they don’t need as much energy as it takes to cool the stalls, he said. “We produce about 24,000 pounds of milk a day,” he said. “The market is a little down, but hopefully it comes up.”

The younger Kibler acknowledged the upfront costs are high – the solar project cost about $215,000 – but this initial investment positions the farm for lower operating costs well into the future, paving the way for the fifth generation of family to run the farm.

“Right now, we’re keeping together pretty good,” he said, noting he has one child and his brother has two – all three of them young — who have expressed an interest in staying with the farm.

“This is in my blood,” he said.

Pictured at top: Garry Kibler Sr.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.