Zoltenko Farms hosting Solar Power Open House at its boar stud operation | TheFencePost.com

Zoltenko Farms hosting Solar Power Open House at its boar stud operation

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post

A boar stud operation on the Kansas/Nebraska border, which recently added a sophisticated geothermal (heating and cooling) system to keep boars at a consistently comfortable body temperature, has also recently completed a major installation of a solar energy system.

Zoltenko Farms near Hardy, Neb., which was founded just over 100 years ago in 1917, will showcase their new 1,164-solar paneled system to the community during their Solar Power Open House at the Zoltenko Farms site on April 21 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Becauses it's a biosecure facility, Zoltenko Farms is asking the public, who would like to attend the event, to kindly take these necessary precautions. "At the open house, we're taking precautions to keep folks away from facilities that are biosecure. We do ask that anyone planning to attend, give us the courtesy of washing vehicles, wearing clean clothes and avoid any contact with pigs for 96 hours; (four days) before coming," said Lannin Zoltenko managing partner of Zoltenko Farms. "We went with a ground mount system, so it's not on the roof; it's in the field. Noone will need to shower in. The equipment is on the outside."

Biosecurity is tight, for a reason. "If one of our team members gets in contact with any pig; even just a pot belly pig, they cannot return into our facilities for four days," Zoltenko said. "We wash and disinfect everything inside the building, including vehicles coming onto the premises." In fact, before traveling to the site at the Kansas/Nebraska border, company vehicles go to a transportation center in Superior, Neb., where the vehicles have first been cleaned, disinfected and dried before entering the Zoltenko Farms facility. "That transportation center serves as the firewall between us and our customers, and between us and the outside world," Zoltenko said.

SOLAR ENERGY

The need for a solar energy system became apparent when Zoltenko Farms' power usage was continually very high at the all-indoor pig production and confinement operation. The priority is the health and reproductive health of the boars, which initially inspired Zoltenko to make the investment into a geothermal system. Keeping the air conditioning temperature at a pleasantly comfortable level is vital so it doesn't stress the boars, and also maintains their fertility. Certain genetic breeds are very easily negatively affected by high temperatures.

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"Even though we cool our barns with evaporative coolers, in summer with high humidity, the temperature can get up into the 80s and can cause the boar to go sterile. So, without the a/c, we've had some summers when up to 40 percent of our animals would go sterile, depending on whether a summer is very hot and humid," Zoltenko said.

"The geothermal is more efficient, but it still uses a lot of electricity. This (adding solar energy) is a way of reducing that power cost, over a 20-year period," Zoltenko said. "I look at it as a long-term investment. There are environmental benefits, although that was not our primary driver. We'll pay less having the solar." He said the solar energy plan is something, that anyone in agriculture who has a consistent electrical usage on a year-round basis, might want to consider.

"Mainly, we were looking at one of our largest costs being electricity, and with this, we're able to lower our cost and capture a lot of it internally, rather than having to leave the farm. The cost per kilowatt produced is about 8 or 9 cents. Our average purchase price is about 12½ cents per kilowatt right now, and we know that continues to go up. But, as long as the solar power system continues to produce the way it's designed to that solar production cost will stay fixed."

TAX CREDITS

With the American Ag Credit leasing arrangement they have, the tax credits are handled for them. "I'm certain that the tax credits that they utilize lowers our rate, without a doubt," Zoltenko said. Economics are different for each installation, and he said that solar energy may not be for everyone. "It's a 10-year pay-off with a 20-year expected life. The way the lease was designed, is that it would be paid for at the end of 10 years. The cost that we're producing power at is below our utility power purchase price during the lease, and then, at at the end of 10 years, the cost essentially goes to zero."

The possibility of using wind energy was also considered, but wind energy didn't win out. "I looked at that pretty extensively," Zoltenko said. "In order to produce the amount of power that we need, there would've needed to be multiple wind turbines and it wasn't going to be a very good fit for us from a power producing standpoint. We like to do much of the work ourselves, but having anything 150 feet in the air, would've been outside our realm," he said. "On the other hand, one of the unique things about solar compared to wind, and this is my opinion, solar is highly scalable, with respect to system sizing, so whether it's a small or large installation, you can customize it to what you need. Whereas with wind energy, you're stuck with whatever size turbines are available."

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Advancing into the biotech and high-tech world is leaps and bounds from where the 100-year -old family farm began. Zoltenko Farms was founded in 1917 in remote Jewell County, Kan., near the town of Hardy, Neb., and morphed into the boar stud business in 1998.

Until fall 1997, the Zoltenkos were a traditional family farming operation. They grew row crops and raised cattle and hogs. Zoltenko said his father recognized an opportunity in the hog semen market for local producers within 50 to 100 miles. Their first hog semen was produced in June 1998. The family began conducting artificial insemination by collecting semen for their own sows.

"In those early days, it was pretty humble beginnings with converted facilities. I graduated high school in 1997 and was married with a small child," Zoltenko said. He briefly attended Kansas State University, then made the decision to return home to the farm. "Back then, we were still farming all our ground and we'd get up at 3 a.m., collect semen, get it cooled, go home and sleep for a bit, and go on our 4-8 hour delivery route of collecting semen two days a week. The other three days we farmed."

As the business continued to grow, it became clear to Zoltenko's father they needed to focus all their attention on the boar stud investment and put the farming part on the back burner.

"We rented the ground to the neighbors," he said. "Then in 2000, there was an opportunity to take on a neighbor's pig production facilities and use it to improve the biosecurity and grow our business." The rest, as they say, is history. It became a golden opportunity to be one of the first links in the chain to produce a high-quality protein for neighbors and people around the globe.

The operation revolves entirely around biosecurity, or maintaining the high-quality health of the hog and insuring fresh delivery of its semen, which has a five-day shelf life. Zoltenko Farms produces about 25,000 doses of semen per week, which increased from 21,000 a couple of years ago. Each boar services about 200 sows, so their expansions over the past two years will enable the facility to service 220,000 sows.

The house, which serves as the company office, was built in 1903 by Zoltenko's great-great-grandfather, who homesteaded there. "My boys are the sixth generation on our farm. We still use that house as our office — the structure is still the same," he said.

The massive boar stud operation is also in the final stages of the second remodel of their geo-thermal unit, in addition to the recent solar energy install. "We were able to locate the solar field at a site central to a large amount of our load, or usage, so we were able to put in the panels and run underground cable, and that was nice."

It will surely be a sight to see for the public at their Solar Open House, an addition that Zoltenko said will last a lifetime. ❖

— Hadachek is freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.