Gilbert Cosson’s pig and dairy farm, a short drive inland from the coast of Brittany, looks like any other – until you come up close and notice his new wind turbine. This is the first such machine in France made by the Galway-based firm C&F Green Energy, an established manufacturer of turbines in Ireland and Britain.
Cosson, 56, was the ideal candidate to bring Irish-made wind generators to the country after the failure of previous attempts. He already had solar panels installed and is always curious about new technologies.
“I like engineering and understanding how things are made,” he told the Irish Farmers Journal during a recent open day on his farm.
After seeing the turbine at the SPACE show nearby, he said he would buy one if C&F brought him to Ireland to see how they were made.
The company obliged, and the machine was connected to the farm’s electricity mains at the beginning of this year.
Milking robot and pig shed ventilation
This hilly site 20km inland from the sea is well located to get a regular breeze, and Cosson’s farm is ideal to benefit from the resulting steady stream of electricity. He milks 45 cows robotically and finishes 1,500 pigs in ventilated sheds. “I’m consuming at least 10kW at any given time,” he explained. He also keeps 200 sows on an outfarm.
His annual electricity bill is currently €8,000, but he expects this to go up from next year. “This is a long-term bet on rising power costs,” he said.
Cosson built the concrete slab and hut used to house the electrical equipment connected to the turbine. The machine itself, with a capacity of up to 25kW, and other ancillary works cost him €125,000 in total.
One bad surprise was the high cost of the underground cable linking the turbine to the farm buildings, at €8,000.
A local company, Diwatt, managed the whole process, supplying the equipment from Ireland and organising planning permission.
€4,000 annual saving
So far, wind power has been on track to cover half of Cosson’s €8,000 annual electricity bill. Such savings, rather than profit from selling power back to the national grid, is the attraction for French farmers.
“The goal is self-consumption,” said Diwatt head Florian Lucas. Farmers there pay 12c to 14c excluding VAT per kWh for electricity, while the feed-in tariff (FiT) to sell wind power back to the national grid brings in only 8.5c/kWh. The same logic applies in Ireland at the moment, but this could change with new incentives due to encourage renewable energy production next year.
The difference, however, is that electricity charges for small businesses rose by 9.5% in France last year – three times faster than here. And this is only the beginning: “The end of regulated tariffs for small businesses on 1 January 2016 will push electricity prices up,” said Lucas. “This is a good time for farmers to buy equipment.”
He expects a wind turbine to pay for itself within 10 years as a result of rising electricity costs – instead of three decades at current prices in the case of Gilbert Cosson.
To tap this emerging market – and others, such as Japan with its high FiTs or the US where grants are available for investment in wind energy – C&F has developed smaller turbines with the kind of high-tech features usually found in large, industrial units.
The machine installed on Cosson’s farm computes the best angle to catch the wind and rotates automatically, adjusting the angle of its blades in the process. It is connected to a maintenance centre through the mobile phone network. Irish-based technicians monitor it and can stop it if something goes wrong. Yet, it cannot be seen or heard by any neighbours, and Cosson had no problem placing it directly opposite his home.
“Our machines are not the megawatt, 80-metre towers you see on TV shows,” C&F’s global operations and business development manager Paul Fitzpatrick told the Irish Farmers Journal. ‘‘Their tip point would be under 50m and a passing car would make more noise than our turbines.”
C&F Green Energy is part of the C&F engineering group based in Athenry, Co Galway. Its range of turbines, starting at €75,000 for a 20kW machine, has proved successful in both Ireland and the UK, where the company claims to have 1,200 of them installed.
It is now competing with European and US-based manufacturers to expand internationally and its foray into the French market is supported by Enterprise Ireland.
“France is a huge agricultural market and with the removal of milk quotas and the expected increase in the cost of electricity, there is a huge opportunity here for C&F,” said Aisling O’Donnell, business development executive for Enterprise Ireland in Paris.
The company’s growth could benefit the Galway area, where it already employs 500 people.
“Everything is manufactured in the west of Ireland,” said Fitzpatrick – although the company is considering sourcing some products in its target markets, such as the masts supporting the turbines.
“You need a balance between the two: to sell in the US, you also need the stamp ‘Made in USA’,” he added.
As for Gilbert Cosson, he is already looking out for the next innovation: batteries to store electricity during high winds and use it later, increasing self-sufficiency. “The Chinese are working on it. I’m sure they will be available in two years’ time’,” he said.
Maintenance contract an essential part of the investment
Gilbert Cosson’s turbine is monitored remotely, self-greasing and attached to an articulated mast that can be lowered for a half-day annual maintenance service.
French distributor and installer Diwatt also provides the maintenance contract – a crucial part of the long-term investment in wind energy.
“We installed a turbine in 2010, but it broke down and the company that sold it to us has shut down,” said one of the farmers who visited Cosson’s farm on the open day.
A group of Scottish farmers recently contacted the Irish Farmers Journal to complain that C&F Green Energy, too, had trouble providing maintenance services there.
According to the turbine owners, they paid upfront for one- or two-year maintenance contracts, with servicing failing to take place in time. They also said that C&F asked to renew maintenance contracts before previously agreed services were completed.
The company acknowledged that there had been delays in servicing in the past because of the sharp increase in the number of turbines being installed, but added that it had contracted a new service provider in the UK more than four months ago, with more people to carry out maintenance visits.
“When you have 1,200 machines in the market, you cannot get to everybody in one day, but to my knowledge there is no conflict at the moment,” said C&F’s Paul Fitzpatrick.
Whatever the make and model chosen when installing a wind turbine, the cases above highlight the need to go through an established local installer to source and service the equipment.
At current electricity prices in France, Gilbert Cosson’s wind turbine would pay for itself in 31 years. To make the investment worthwhile within a more reasonable time frame of 15 years, French electricity prices would have to double. This may seem a lot, but with a near 10% jump in electricity costs for small businesses last year and deregulation on the way, the bet could prove to be a winning one in the long run.
These slats had been in place since 1980 and were showing obvious signs of erosion.
The majority of gang slats would be expected to have a working life of approximately 25 years but this is not guaranteed and it does not mean that they cannot fail before that. I have come across reports from farmers of slats failing before this so farmers need to be vigilant.
For that reason, farmers should take time to inspect slats thoroughly during the summer in preparation for the housing period. A lot of building work took place on farms in the 1990s and early 2000s and the slats on these sheds may be coming to the end of their working life.
For slats that were produced decades ago, the steel may have been placed too near the outer surface of the concrete and at risk of corrosion, leaving the slat at risk of collapse. Corrosion, or damage during installation, can allow slurry to come in contact with the steel. The steel eventually rusts, weakens and swells, cracking the concrete.
On the farm that I visited there was a double tank of gang slats that had to be replaced. The original slats had been installed in 1980 and looking at the slats from the top, there was very little visual signs of damage or corrosion. However, when the bottom of the slats were inspected, a different story was told. The farmer had not intended to replace the slats this year.
However, one of them failed during the spring, slipping into the tank with cattle also falling in. As can be seen in the pictures, the slat cracked across the middle, allowing it to sag enough for the edge to slip off the wall. Cattle were recovered from the tank but it was evident that slats were beginning to fail.
From the top, the slats looked okay but looking underneath a different story was told.
It was at this point that Corbett Concrete came out to inspect the remainder of the slats and it was evident that they would need to be replaced.
Initially, it was thought that it would be a simple job to lift the slats and install new replacement ones. The slats were resting on precast centre beams that ran down the middle of the tank. Once the slats were lifted, the beams became visible.
Immediately it was evident that these too were cracked with visible erosion present. It would not have made sense to fit new slats on beams that had become perished, with a limited remaining life.
Purpose-built beams will be prefabricated and installed to support the weight of the new slats.
The existing slats were six inches thick but it was decided that the new ones would be seven inches to provide greater strength.
It is vital when laying new slats that they are free from any cracks, honeycombing or chips on the top corner. They must have a full bearing of at least 150mm at points of support and the finished slat floor must be level and free from any rocking. It is worth consulting the Department specifications S123 and S123S if you are thinking of replacing slats.
They should be able to be replaced with minimum disturbance as they have a limited working life, much shorter than that of the shed. One issue that farmers have encountered is where cubicle beds have been positioned on slats and the difficulty that then arises when slats need replacing. Standard cubicle beds must not be built directly on to new replacement slats. Where it is necessary to construct cubicle over slats, precast cubicle beds must be used. The slats under the precast cubicle beds must also be heavy duty.
One option for the farmer is to install Corbett Concrete's dairy slat.
It is advised that machinery is not driven over any slats as some farmers have reported that these slats become weak due to the large weights that may be going over them. Where there is a possiblity of machinery travelling over slats, then heavy-duty slats must be installed. However, where possible, slats should not be located along the travelling routes of machinery.
The design load for heavy-duty slats is an axle load of 80kN (8.16t), or 40kN (4.08t) per wheel at each end. The actual weight of a tractor and trailer combination will depend upon the number of axles on the trailer and the load distribution. Where machinery has to pass over a tank on a regular basis, it is better if possible to use slabs, rather than heavy-duty slats, as they will have a longer working life and are at least the same strength.
When installing new slats, they should not be driven on as this may weaken them. Corbett Concrete will use a crane with an extendable arm that will safely stretch into the shed from outside.
If you do have to replace slats, ensure that the tank has been emptied before any work starts and ensure that nobody enters the tank. If it is necessary to enter the tank, it should be tested for the presence of any harmful gases.
While nothing will beat actually viewing the underside of the slats there are still some tell-tale signs to look out for. These can include chunks of concrete out in fields after slurry has been spread. These chunks can fall off and get sucked up into the tanker and spread on the land.
Another indication that they are failing is where they are beginning to sag. This can be seen if a straight edge is laid down across the centre of the slats. Additionally, with more and more slatted sheds being fitted with rubber mats, it can be even more difficult to spot a faulty slat.
For that reason, ensure that slats are fully cleaned and lift the rubber mats if needs be to get a good look at them. Cleaning down between the gaps in the slats may also help to identify any corrosion or faults. It is also vital to prevent slurry filling up over the slats for a period of time as it leads to greater corrosion.
“We would always tell farmers to look at slats earlier in the year when cattle leave the shed,” said Michael Corbett from Corbett Concrete. “When farmers are replacing slats, it also gives them the opportunity to clean out the silt and gravel that has accumulated in the bottom of the tank.”
The Department has stressed that slats and manhole covers are not lifetime items and need to be replaced before they fail. Slat or manhole cover failure can be an expensive way to discover that a replacement is required. To avoid broken legs, or worse still, animals or yourself ending up in the slurry tank, all slats and manhole covers should be carefully inspected for cracks and sagging, and replaced as necessary. Attempting to rescue animals from slurry tanks is extremely dangerous and has resulted in the loss of multiple human lives so never rush into a tank, placing your own life at risk.
The Irish Farmers Journal recently visited a new robotic set-up on the farm of Francis and Eimear Nally and their young family Aaron and Killian, from outside Athlone, Co Westmeath. One robot has been installed on the farm but scope has been left to install another in the future if desired.
While Francis’ parents Fintan and Bridie Nally had been milking up until 1999, the decision was taken to move away from dairy. However, in 2011 Francis and Eimear re-established the dairy enterprise on the home block. Sixty cows were milked in the first year through a standard parlour and that has steadily increased in the intervening period, with 145 cows now being milked between the two blocks on the farm.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to manage two different parlours so the decision was made to go for the robot. From a lifestyle point of view, there are a lot of benefits too,” according to Francis. “There are a lot of people that don’t understand what goes into a weekend milking and the time it can take."
From left to right - Keith Nally, Eimear Nally, Francis Nally, SEamus McDonagh and Niall McGauran.
The Lely Astronaut was installed on a 57ac out-block which was used for carrying drystock and making silage up to this year.
Moving to an outside block with no buildings or farm infrastructure gave Francis and the team at Lely Mullingar the opportunity of locating the new shed at the centre of the farm, which is not always an option for farmers. However, it is possible to have cows walking up to 2km to the robot.
There are also options for the actual layout of the building, with the bulk tank located anywhere within 100m of the robot.
The site was chosen to allow for an A-B-C grazing system to be installed. “We designed the roadways so that cows would not be meeting each other coming back from one block as this could have an effect on cow flow in and out of the shed,” according to Niall McGauran of Lely Mullingar.
The grazeway stretches out a further 10.5m from the shed as it was decided to allow plenty of room to prevent any sharp turns for cows.
“Roadways generally do not need to be too wide as it is mainly low levels of cow traffic that will be moving on them. Two-metre-wide pathways would be sufficient,” said Niall.
The gates to the A block will be open between 2am and 1pm, B block between 1pm and 7pm and C block between 7pm and 2am. In a year like this when grass is tight and any rotational grazing system is seriously challenged, the question often posed is how a robotic system can cope with these conditions, especially with grass used as a tool to encourage cows to move through the different blocks.
For Francis, feeding silage started four weeks ago with 70 bales fed to date. He made the decision to feed silage outside in fields to help keep cows moving through the robot.
“Another option for farmers is to continue letting cows out to paddocks in the A and B blocks but keep cows inside for the C block and allow them access to silage, for example,” Niall said.
The shed has a total of 124 cubicles and has been designed to allow for the addition of a second robotic unit in the future if required, although the land block surrounding the shed is the current limiting factor. Cows are fed on either side of the shed.
The shed itself is 36.6m long and 27.3m wide. Slatted tanks are laid out in a T shape, ensuring that when not allowed access to the cubicles, cows will be over slats for the majority, if not all, of the time that they are in the shed for milking. Tanks are 9ft deep with a total slurry storage capacity of 150,000 gallons.
Over the past winter the shed was used to hold three different groups of stock with dividers used between cubicles. Crossover points at either end of the shed mean that there is easy access to the feed barriers.
“It is a versatile shed,” according to Seamus McDonagh, project co-ordinator with Lely Mullingar. “It can be used for the 70 cows that are being milked off the robot but it can also be set up to hold other groups too.”
The main area of the shed is made up of three rows of 20 cubicles running head to head, while a further four cubicles are located in an isolation area where cows can be automatically drafted to. Cubicles measure 1.1m (43in) centre to centre with double cubicle beds measuring 4.5m from heel to heel. The feeding area for cows is 4.2m wide from the heel of the cubicle bed to the feed barrier.
“Anything less than this would be too tight and would impact on cow flow around the shed. It is often these areas that would be compromised in existing sheds but space within a shed is even more important when it comes to robotic milking,” according to Seamus.
“Cow flow is very important throughout the shed and we made sure that there were no bottlenecks or dead ends.”
The two passageways that run down the centre of the shed are 2.9m wide. The minimum requirement is 1.8m but this could negatively impact cow flow.
Crossover points are 2.3m wide. Francis made the decision to install drinkers on the doors at the end of the passageway as opposed to at the crossover point. If they were located at the crossover point, passageways would have to be 3.5m wide. In this way, he could fit an extra six cubicles in the shed. Scrapers in the shed also go out under the door.
Having a good drafting system was pointed out as one of the key considerations when it comes to robotic milking with this system allowing cows to be drafted to either cubicles or a large straw pen that has not yet been fitted with barriers. It is recommended that passageways that lead to the isolation area or the handling area are 950mm to 1m wide to ensure cows cannot turn back.
Ample space needs to be left in front of the robot to allow cows to easily move in and out of the system. Ideally 5m to 6m should be left and here is it 5.5m.
Francis has installed a camera system focusing on the grazeway gates and the robot itself to identify any issues, and also for security.
“We were nervous of the system at the start,” Francis admitted. “There is a good bit of labour required to get going and that is made even more difficult when it is an outside block and you are not there as much. Things have settled down now but that only happened in the last five or six weeks.
“At the start you could be getting alerts from the robot the whole time but that can be changed so you will only get alerts for critical issues. The shed is designed to be easily kept,” he said.
“You do get more information on cows with the robot and that does filter through to deciding what to cull, for example. Every milking you can get information on yield, butterfat, protein, lactose and somatic cell count (SCC). The heat detection with the robot is also working well, we would generally AI for four to five weeks and then let bulls out.”
The cost of the first Lely Astronaut is €125,000 to €150,000, depending on the specifications of the robot. This includes other aspects including the grazeway and compressor. It also includes yard design, project management and mapping of the farm to plan grazing infrastructure.
The costs for installing a second robot start from €80,000.
A TAMS grant was used to part-fund the robot, with Francis availing of a 40% grant on the first €80,000 invested.
Eugene Costello did all the concrete work for the project, while Coyle Agri supplied the barriers. Oliver Nally plumbed the shed. The meal bin was supplied by McAree Engineering and Brendan Donnelly supplied and fitted the auger system. The mattresses were supplied by Teemore Engineering. Fencing was completed by Frank Byrne. Alan Dooley Satellite Systems installed the camera system.
John Fitzgerald, in partnership with Paul Sweetnam, recently constructed a new cubicle shed and milking parlour on a greenfield site on their farm in Leamlara, Co Cork.
“We originally started off in an employer-employee relationship in 2013, but, in reality, we were partners in everything but name so, in 2015, we went into partnership,” John explained.
“It helped to bring Paul closer to the business, as well as allowing us better access to grant aid. The partnership has worked really well so far.”
John and Paul both have off-farm jobs, so one of the main priorities is to have the farm as mechanised as possible.
“We would be really big fans of labour-saving techniques wherever we can implement them. Having a low-maintenance business is a key part of our model,” John said.
The farm has experienced staggered expansion since 2012, when John took it over. The herd has steadily progressed from a milking herd of 56 cows to 160.
“We didn’t buy in any stock and bred all of our own replacements. We were doing calf to beef up until two years ago, but we stopped that as the herd grew,” John said.
When designing a new shed, sometimes people will only look at the short-term development of the farm, but this was not the case for John and Paul.
“The thought process for the new sheds started in 2012,” according to John. “We wanted to develop a sustainable business. In the first few years, we developed the farm roadways and the water systems and then attention turned towards the bigger investments.”
Research and planning were key when it came to deciding what they wanted the cubicle shed and parlour to look like. “We got a lot of advice and went to see a lot of different sheds and the quality of the finish before we decided on a design and a contractor to do the work. We took a lot of input from a lot of different people, which was definitely worth it,” according to John.
“We saw that where we place the shed now would impact on how we can expand again in the future if we wanted to.”
Grasstec was brought in to map the farm yard and develop a design that would fit in with John and Paul’s ideas.
Grasstec engineer John O’Callaghan said: “The key elements of this project were to design and build a new milking parlour and cubicle shed on to a difficult sloping greenfield site.
“We also had to be conscious that the new sheds would tie in with the existing farmyard and passageways, while providing the ability for future expansion of the herd, shed and collecting yard over time.”
Picture one and figure one
The new buildings include a cubicle shed with 88 cubicle beds and an adjoining 24-unit milking parlour. Additionally, a new collecting yard, handling unit and dairy were also constructed.
The parlour was built into a slope, meaning that the dairy is above the parlour itself. Located in the dairy is a new 18,000-litre bulk tank supplied by Liscarroll Engineering.
“The old parlour that was here was an eight-unit herringbone that was 40 years old, so it owed us nothing. It was a very tough spring milking in it, with milking taking up on eight hours a day, which was mentally and physically tough,” John Fitzgerald admitted.
Pictures two and three
The new cubicle shed is just under 23m wide and approximately 43m long and is fitted with 88 cubicles, as well as a dry bedded calving area.
The shed is nine bays in length with two bays of the shed dedicated to a calving area.
Feeding takes place on three sides of the shed, which allows for buffer feeding at the shoulders of the year, if necessary. Two double rows of cubicles run down the centre of the shed, which are 4.8m long at 1.15m centres.
All passageways throughout the shed are grooved to provide grip for cows. Three automatic scrapers run the length of the shed into a double slatted tank in place at one end.
One of the tanks is slatted, while the other extends out under a suspended feeding passage, which provides additional slurry storage, an option more and more farmers are opting for. This gives a total slurry storage capacity in this double tank of 564,000 litres.
Pictures four and five
While the new Boumatic milking parlour is currently 24 units, the pit has been constructed to take 32 units to allow for future expansion as the herd grows further.
“We decided to go for 2ft 2in centres for the parlour. It means that there is less walking to be done in the pit, which I like,” John said.
“We visited a lot of different parlours and the quality was very close between the lot of them, but the Boumatic parlour won on price.”
The parlour is fitted with swing-over arms, automatic cluster removers and an auto-wash system.
Milking time has been halved with the new parlour, now taking approximately four hours per day.
A large collecting yard with space for 200 cows is located directly behind the parlour, which has greatly improved cow flow.
“Cow flow with the new setup is phenomenal,” according to John.
“We have stalls filled in under a minute. One of the main advantages of going to a greenfield site has been the cow flow. We installed a backing gate in the collecting yard too, which is a great help,” he said.
“Having good facilities means that there are more chances of getting in good casual labour whenever we need it and labour is really becoming the limiting factor on a lot of farms.”
John Mulcahy of Mulcahy Steel said: “The cow flow between the parlour and the handling facilities were designed to allow one man to manage large numbers safely by himself.”
The position of the collecting yard also means that it can be expanded easily in the future if desired.
Running adjacent to the collecting yard is a 19m long and 4.4m wide slatted tank, designated for parlour washings.
This has a total capacity of 165,000 litres, meaning it has storage capacity for over 400 cows for 15 days, according to Grasstec.
When cows exit the milking parlour, they can be directed through an automatic drafter where cows for serving can be separated. Also located in the handling area is a batch crush for AI that can hold nine cows or a conventional crush that can hold 11 cows.
Cows can also bypass the handling area and drafting unit if desired.
Both John and Paul qualify as young farmers through TAMS, meaning that accumulatively they were able to benefit from a 60% grant aid on the first €160,000 spent on the project, giving them grant aid of just over €90,000, according to John.
The TAMS grant was used for a new silage pit that was built adjoining the new shed and for the milking equipment.
“We are happy with the new facilities, which are a good investment for years to come,” said John.
Substantial groundworks were required on the site to dig into the hill on one side and build up the ground on the other side.
Mulcahy Steel completed the entire project, including all concrete work, fabricating and erecting the shed and installing the internal penning.
The total cost of the project came to approximately €565,000 including the VAT.