HOLLAND PATENT, NY — With some 800 cows, the sprawling Finndale Farms is one of the largest, most modern and efficient operations in the greater Mohawk Valley.
But the 50-year-old farm has faced one significant problem for years — steadily rising energy costs. Thanks to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the Finn family is now incorporating renewable solar thermal hot water technology.
New York State has joined with the federal government to offer financial incentives that help businesses, schools and homeowners defray the upfront cost of installing on-grid solar energy facilities.
“Seventy percent of our heating comes from oil tanks,” said co-owner Debbie Finn. “Last year from April to September, we paid $875 in heating, and this year it’s $570. The cost per gallon went from $3.20 to $2.15.”
Finn discussed Finndale Farms’ milking operation with local farmers as part of a self-drive tour of alternative energy agriculture sites arranged by CCE and NYSERDA.
The other tour sites that day were Grassy Cow Grazing Dairy and Creamery in Remsen, which just began producing cheese curds this spring, as well as two businesses in Herkimer County that produce and sell wood pellet systems, the New England (Schuyler) Wood Pellet Manufacturing Plant in Frankfort and Vincent’s Heating & Fuel Service in Poland.
Finndale Farms hired professionals from The Radiant Store, a New York State company, to install the thermal energy system, primarily consisting of two 80-gallon water tanks, in March at about the same time as at Grassy Cow. The Finns installed 14 solar panels for what Debbie called “a reasonable” amount.
The Radiant Store employees are certified contractors and they handled all the complex paperwork, which eased the Finns’ mind.
“We’re happy we did it,” Finn told her guests. “We know that when we expand our calf barn we’ll use solar panels, too.”
As the sun heats the panels on the roof of the barn, the energy goes into a compressor that heats water from Finndale Farm’s own well. The hot water is used for the milk-line and equipment-cleaning operation.
The hot water tanks were installed in a utility room attached to the main cow barn. The room conveniently houses a washer and dryer, as well. “It seemed like it was going to (meet our needs) at the time we bought it, but now it’s not big enough,” she said.
Finndale Farms milks 800 cows, predominantly Holsteins and about 40 Jerseys, three times a day. The farm crops 1,500 acres each of hay and corn.
“We keep our costs under control. We’re very conservative and that way, we’re able to be profitable,” said Finn.
Finndale Farms has nine employees, including four men who handle milking, plus a corps of truck drivers who haul crops from the fields to the barns.
Being conservative on costs doesn’t mean scrimping on creature comforts or on the farm’s neat-as-a-pin appearance. Finndale Farms definitely lives up to its Dairy of Distinction award.
The herd is housed in freestyle stalls in four large red barns, one each for calves, transition, heifers and adult cows. The newborns are weaned at six weeks and moved to the calf barn where they are housed in spacious pens, one or two in each pen.
The cows feast on grain from Finndale Farms, as well as balage or corn silage. Automated alley scrapers work continuously to pipe the manure out to a large pit in the yard.
Debbie’s husband, Travis, spoke with the guests about the construction on a barn expansion. When it’s completed around Thanksgiving, the cows will not only have more room, but will spend their days resting on water matresses. The current barn has a cement floor covered with hay. In addition, the new barn will be equipped with new, smaller but brighter LED lights.
Travis said he has been concerned for some time about overcrowding. Interestingly, a recent visitor from Switzerland, who had once worked on Finndale Farm as a young man, told him that Swiss cows enjoy a lot more room than American cows.
“When they move into the new barn, I think we’ll see production go up,” said Debbie. “They won’t be overcrowded, and better cow comfort means more production.
In her spare time, Debbie is president of the board of directors for Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County and shares her knowledge with her neighboring farmers.