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Obtanium Engineering

Modern dairy tends to involve rather complex engineering and use lots of energy. A micro dairy is not necessarily much less complicated. I am trying to creatively (re)use available materials and renewable energy to help Sellar Dairy move toward a vision of sustainable and regenerative farming.

Context

Energy is everywhere in all imaginable forms. Our modern way of life uses lots and lots of it. Some forms of energy, like oil and coal are particularly useful to us, more so than the same amount of energy in, say, heat.

Much of the way of life we take for granted is based on massive reserves of fossil fuels. These resources have been found in such large quantities that we have been able to build a huge civilisation based on them.

Between the growing awareness of resource limits and climate change, a movement to find alternative ways to live is rapidly gathering momentum.

Food production in our modern world is at the edge of both energy and climate. Farms, on the whole, use a lot of energy and rely on stable and predictable climate.

About a century ago, more than 2000 calories of food were produced for every calorie of fossil energy used in US broad-acre agriculture. These days that is reversed!  Yes, more than 2000 calories of fossil energy are used to produce each calorie of food.

Despite the resource limits we face, the abundance of cheap and useful energy from the last century has lead to a huge amount of discarded resources. Making things from available materials, or Obtanium Engineering, is one of the best ways to make the energy, already invested(embodied energy), go further.

Obtainium Engineering Farming

To be a farmer is to be a Jack-of-all-Trades. It is not uncommon to find some ingenious use of available material on farms. Its common place on farms to maintain equipment and creatively use available materials. I am certainly not alone as a farming Obtanium engineer. It seems to me that the “quality” of Obtanium in rural and farming areas tends to be lower for at least two reasons. Firstly, these folks tend to be less wasteful in the first place and secondly tend to reuse waste more effectively.

Being closer to centres of population, wealth, industry and big business seems to “improve” the quality of Obtanium. Obviously this means more is being wasted in these areas. Our culture needs to learn to waste less. But in the mean time we need lots more Obtanium Engineers to salvage these fantastic resources.

Obtanium is not as reliable or predictable as new materials by its very nature, requiring a greater degree of flexibility, innovative design and some times some inefficiencies. For many people efficiency is one of the keys to sustainability but its really only part of the picture. Here lies the Prius problem. We need to also consider the amount of energy to make new tools, not only their operating cost. Sometimes the total energy used is less to continue to operate older equipment than replace it with newer, higher efficiency, equipment.

Reuse of materials isn’t always easy, often taking longer and potentially  sacrificing some degree of reliability or consistency. This makes redundancy and serviceability important design requirements. Obtanium engineering is a slow way. Perhaps it can be thought of a bit like Slow Food.

For the last year I have been sourcing materials, designing and construction the various components of Sellar Dairy.

I have discovered that the more technically demanding the system being designed, the more challenging it is to reuse materials as its particularly difficult to know the exact specifications and capabilities of second hand equipment in order to do the necessary calculations to ensure the components of the system will function correctly together. For this reason, industry tends to be incredibly wasteful, throwing away(recycling) huge amounts of perfectly functional equipment. A functioning machine that is melted down for scrap is a huge waste of all the energy it took to make it compared to reusing it.

Our Design, Engineering & Reuse

This is a somewhat flexible process that adapts to the available materials as they are sourced. Below are a few snap shots of the evolving designs for some of elements of Sellar Dairy and examples of the wins, losses and challenges in reuse.

The Factory

We had done some initial designs sufficient to decide on a 40′ insulated shipping container as the base for the moveable Sellar Dairy factory.

The container
The basic plan for the factory to be built into the container.
Making a start
Putting a floor in and dealing with the irregularities of used materials

The floor of the container wasn’t all even as it had suffered some damage from years of use carrying heavy cargo. To accomodate for the damaged to the floor in one corner I had to create tapered supports to carry the ply flooring substrate.

Reusing refrigeration panel for the coolroom walls.

The Vat

The heart of the dairy is the pasteurisation vat, both in an engineering and energy use sense. Tess had a relatively good idea what she needed in size and found a good candidate early on.

200L Pasteurisation Vat. An ex-yogurt culture test vat that had been cut down is size.

The energy required for the vat to heat, for pasteurisation, and cool, for storage, is significant. The systems required to do this heating and cooling are complex.

Heating and Cooling Design

Basic overview diagram of heating and cool – v2.2

Heat

Electricity is a very high grade energy. Its able to do almost everything we need, including make heat. But its a huge waste to degrade electricity to heat. Heat is one of the most abundant forms of energy around us and its much harder to turn it into electricity than visa versa. Solar thermal is much more efficient and lower tech than solar photovoltaic for creating heat. We will use solar thermal panels to provide much of our heat needs through the hotter months.

Used solar thermal (solar hot water) panels.

I have refurbished damaged panels destined to be scrapped.

Rewelding cracked (from frost damaged) panels

Refrigeration

Refrigeration and cooling systems are one of the biggest contributors to climate change(see Drawdown). I have been particularly keen to ensure our impacts from our cooling needs are as low as possible. We are recovering many parts from the large old, leaking and failing refrigeration system from the two refrigerated containers we have. We(HOFC) got a second one as part of the infrastructure for the hub(our co-op shared facilities). 

The old container refrigeration system

The 8 kg of R-134a refrigerant gas from the two refrigeration units is equivalent to about 11,440kg of CO2 in terms of its greenhouse effect on the atmosphere.

The average Australian travels a bit over 11,000km/year. In a car that uses about 7.5L/100km this would equate to about 2.41 tons of CO2 emissions(ref). So the refrigerant gas from our two containers, if released, is something like 4.7 years of driving for the average person! Eeek.

We had the refrigerant gas professionally recovered by Graeme Ellis and will use it in the system we are rebuilding. Greame has been great in working with us on this journey of reuse.

I have recovered the compressors out of the systems.

Shipping container refrigeration compressor ready for sandblasting, painting and an oil change.

Waste Heat

Almost everything  seems to make waste heat. Particularly lots of industrial processes. We are able to capture some of this waste heat. Our refrigeration compressor will produces lots of waste heat(more than 10kw). By retrofitting water cooling onto our compressor we can make it more efficient. Also we are able to run the hot water through a heat exchanger to recover(into our hot water system) some of this waste heat.

A tube-in-tube heat exchanger for waste heat recovery I just built from scrap copper piping.

Pumps

The systems require lots of pumps for all that heating and cooling.

So many pumps get scrapped that just need a service. I have recovered lots of pumps from the scrap metal that just need new bearings and seals. And then there are the ones that are still perfectly functional without any servicing too. Even brand new stuff makes it into the scrap!

Pumps diverted from scrap

Cold Storage

We’ve found old 3000L milk refrigeration vats second hand to store our cold process water for chilling the milk vat.

Cold water storage tanks

These are a good illustration that reuse is not always predictable or easy. When Graeme Ellis tested the refrigeration coils, he discovered that only one of the two vats was useable. The second was leaking badly and upon closer inspection failed repairs were visible. We actually only need one. Its often necessary to get more than you are expecting to use when engineering from obtanium.

Hot Storage

hot water cylinders arriving

The design for the hot water storage has been adapted around these 4 415L hot water cylinders from our own local second hand materials business, the Salvage Yard. A fantastic business that support these values of reuse. 

Perhaps we can think of Obtanium Engineering as an effort to improve embodied energy efficiency. Really just getting the most out of what we already have.

This post has primarily focused on reusing energy already stored in stuff(embodied energy). The other side of the coin is also the dynamic energy that we use to run the systems. In a future chapter I will go into more detail about the energy usage and production side of the dairy.

I would like to end with a sneak peak into an exciting and innovative renewable energy system we are looking to demonstrate. Like most things innovative, nothing is certain but the system is showing great promise.

Inovation in renewable energy – Inresol micro CHP(combined heat and power) generation unit.

Thanks for your support and interest in Sellar Dairy.

Oliver Holmgren

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Blood

In an average Australian year,  24% of work place fatalities happen within the agriculture sector. With less than 3% of the population working within farming this makes us 8 times more likely to die at work than any other industry.

Farming is a dangerous career choice. From working with dangerous machinery to working with animals and nature, everyday we partake in activities which could change our life for ever. Sure, other industries have risky practices, but farming as an industry has been pushed to a desperate place. Often people are working alone and so if things go wrong there is no help at hand. Always farmers are pushed for time and resources which means equipment is often not maintained, corners are cut, people get complacent as the ‘job just needs doing now! We’ll worry about fixing it later’. Then to top it off the work of farmers is way under valued by our current society, there’s no heroism in ‘thanks for giving your body and soul so that we can eat’.

I’ve had the benefit of coming from a workplace where OHS is taken very seriously. Oli is known for being a rare breed when it comes to safety gear and protocol when riding motorbikes, forestry and hunting. Yet with all this risk assessment framework in mind, we too fell victim to ‘just get the job done’. Since starting to farm we’ve had a few near misses, learnt some cheap lessons until we were forced recently to slow down.

Things have been stressful, trying to get this factory built so we can start selling dairy. Building always seem to take longer than you think. But this particular Saturday, 5 weeks ago, wasn’t such a stressful day. We were just moving the water cart after having filled it. There were a few factors in the lead up.

The 1968 Toyota stout (Bert) that we usually use for towing the water cart was in use for moving the milking parlour so I was using our registered 1978 Toyota Stout (Vera).

Vera – Our 1978 Toyota Stout

 

 

The tray hangs out over the toe hitch which makes connecting and disconnecting trailers awkward at the best of times.

Vera – Tray over tow ball

We then connect the 1500ltr single axel water cart.

Kermit the water cart

The grass was very wet so the road tyres on Vera were struggling to get traction, frustration builds. We managed to get the trailer moved but parked on a slight backward slope. Now here’s the worst part; we knew our hands were at risk. Oli stopped me from pulling the tow hitch up. We stood back and thought about it. ‘Well at least put your hand under, not over, so if it does jump up you wont get crushed’.

Then next thing I knew Oli had jumped back, screaming ‘F*#k! I’ve cut my finger off’.

 

Sweat

The trailer hitch had jumped up against the tray of the ute with such force and taken the end of Oli’s middle right finger clean off.

Over the next 48 hrs we had many thoughts regarding the medical system in Australia. But in this first period we were so grateful we have access to Castlemaine Hospital and its facilities. Within 20min of the event we were with a Dr having it cleaned and the surgeon organised in Bendigo.

Arriving in Bendigo was a slightly different story. We saw how lucky we are in Australia to have such high level public health care. But even with this, on a Saturday afternoon in a regional hospital, on the night of ‘white night’ the number of high level staff available meant that when Oli finally got into surgery at 1pm the next day they had to remove more of his finger than he did on the trailer.

Tears

Coming to terms with it has been the hardest part. This finger has healed remarkably; the body is an amazing thing.

But the physical lose of the end of his finger and realising that our own completely avoidable actions caused this has been hard.

We’re taking safety very serious now. When that part of your brain says don’t do it, we’re listening. When we think ‘I’ll just do it this time and then fix it’, we fix it now. The hardest part is going to be maintaining this into the future. When the finger becomes normalised and the trauma fades, how do we remember that short cuts are rarely short and the risks are not worth it. Our bodies are all we have and they’re bloody good to us! We hope our story helps others make better decisions next time they do something risky.

Time

Time is the only thing we can never change, if we could we would go back and do many things differently.

Taking more care to look after the land, our animals and our selves takes longer.

This injury has highlighted for us that caring for our selves is just another facet of moving toward a more sustainable agriculture. We are really grateful to everyone supporting this movement.

Daisy and Millie unaware of what it took to get them portable water.

 

Grooming and mating

No, not grooming for mating, two separate events.

A big, exciting project which has been going on here in Harcourt is the grooming of the picnic gully block. Katie and Hugh bought the 5ha block a few years back, which unfortunately from a grazing perspective, was way over our heads in gorse, briar rose, wild plums and black berries. As Oli’s dad said, great property for goats!

To see the ground we’re working with Katie and Hugh got in David with his groomer. A mother of a machine, we watched him reduced 2m shrub to a beautiful ground mulch with just two passes.

There are many opinions on how to manage these plants and their regrowth. Many have tried, many have failed, different combinations at different times. One thing I know is that these plants are colonisers,; full of minerals and organic matter which we need so desperately on our soils here. A friend who’d done many experiments managing gorse said it doesn’t matter what you do, if you have the grazing pressure of wallabies, nothing will ever get ahead to out compete the gorse.

So with years of work ahead we are taking the path of managed grazing. We’ve been busy hand broadcasting seed, many perennials, hoping they will take advantage of the coming Spring and the rich organic matter which is currently decomposing. Once established, we will use the cows to strip graze, followed directly by slashing any regrowth the cows missed.

Next winter we are hoping to get a large tree belt planted down the gully. This will help to stop erosion while taking advantage of any moisture to grow more tree fodder for our ladies.

The second major event that is happening is the breeding of our herd. This was going to be a simple trailer trip to the bull and 9 months later hey presto, calf. Not so, we’ve had a few unsuccessful dates with the bull and the embarrassing problem of not being able to catch Olive when she was on heat. However, another story of a ridiculously generous farmer; our patient neighbour has visited for AI and is now teaching me how to do it. This is certainly not as easy as he makes it look! I plan to always use natural mating where I can,  but the convenience and genetic options of AI has it’s advantages.

As spring has sprung I eagerly watch as the grass grows and the days warm up.

 

Construction takes time

Now that the milk is flowing, we’ve been busy trying to get the creamery up and running. Then we can get licensed to start selling and sharing this beautiful milk!

We started off with a bare bit of land next to the existing packing shed. The main issue with the site being the large granite bolder. However, this is not a problem for us as we want the factory raised so we can access all the plumbing! Thanks to Phil and his trusty plumbers excavator, we got the site cleared up and ready for the container to be delivered. We learnt that all granite is not created equal!

After a day trekking through container yards in Melbourne we found our perfect factory. Refrigerated containers; Reefers, are not so easy to come by these days, particularly ones which aren’t being decommissioned because of the extensive damage by forklifts, so when we found this one it was an easy decision. Easy was not the word I’d use for getting it delivered and in place though. I think the truck drivers words went something like ‘it can’t be done, where else can I put it’, but we persisted.

We then had a big blue box, which very quickly become home to all the tools and equipment we needed up at Harcourt. We had Morgan connect the power and then there was light!

With the skilled and daring team of Dave, Christian, Jacques and Rowan, Oli set to constructing the roof over the container. While we currently dread the idea of it, the design of the factory is to be portable. If for one reason or another we are to move the business to another property, the whole thing can be disassembled and come with us. Avoiding being locked into costly, permanent infrastructure and the need to buy land is at the core of this business model.

We purchased second hand trusses which had come off industrial greenhouses which took a special kind of engineering to erect.

However getting the pre-rolled 8.5m long sheets of tin on was testing on minds and bodies.

Building an airplane hanger? you say. No, this is our stylish shed. Providing protection for our equipment and container as well as a large amounts of storage space.

At last Rowan and Oli installed the windows and cleared the deck ready to lay the floor. No longer a daunting big box. It already feels like a factory with a view.

As I will say time and time again, none of this would be possible without all overwhelming hours of work and support which people have given us. My partner Oli in particular has had his life hijacked by this project. He is the building/engineer extraordinaire. At least there’s good food, good views, good people and spectacular cows to keep him coming to work!

And of course, my lovely ladies! We’ve had nervous times experimenting with them grazing in the orchard. Olive took a trip to the bull (what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon). Daisy, who was meant to be pregnant told us loud and clear that she’s not. The calves get bigger by the day and the worry about feed security  in the current and future season is a constant on the mind.

 

Finding a rhythm

Well, following the euphoric first few weeks of life post Iggy’s birth; the milks flowing and the calves are playing, the systems you’d assumed would work start showing cracks.

Farmings all about learning. Planning is important, but being adaptable is critical. Changes need to happen fast.

A few weeks in I had a few down days, things just didn’t seem to being going quite how I’d planned. It was wet and miserable, the calves had bad guts from drinking to much milk and the feed outlook wasn’t looking great.

Being feed secure is one of the greatest problems livestock farmers face and at the end of the day is often what makes it a slightly profitable career or a black hole to sink your money and time into. I have lots of great long term ideas for securing feed within the farming system, however many of those plans take time. We’re currently in a very rough season, the rains came too late to get much Autumn growth in the paddocks. I have the benefit of being on land which has only been kangaroo grazed for the past decade so I have more feed available than most, but planning ahead is key. A wise farmer told me if you don’t have a months worth of grass in front of you, panic! Currently I’m looking ok but staying on top of your rotational grazing plan is crucial.

I’ve been only one week ahead of my self with fencing, finding a middle ground between portable electric fencing and permanent fencing. The kangaroos run straight through and knock over the former while the latter is costly, both in labour and financial terms, and leaves little room to change the shape of paddocks later.

Keeping the herd moving so as to leave no bare ground behind is very important to me. Overgrazing and leaving exposed ground has been a major contributor to Australia’s soil carbon dropping by up to half pre-colonial Australian levels. Soil health and fertility is the back bone of food security.

I’ve been supplementary feeding oaten hay and a concentrate mix in the milking bale consisting of chaff, bran, seaweed and a handful of barley. At some times of year this will mainly be as an incentive to come in for milking, however in this season it’s definitely needed as a food source. It’s one thing to be buying in feed, but to be requiring certified organic is another story. For very good reason as it aligns with the principles of organics, many organic farmers are small and self supporting, not growing excess feed to sell but having a closed loop system where they grow what they need. This combined with the large amounts of dairies moving towards organic certification, as well as the season, make it very hard to source certified feed this year. Many farmers are buying up loads to get them through the next 12 months. I’ve been so lucky to have the support of local organic farmers who’ve helped me source feed to get on my feet. I definitely feel the drive more than ever to strive for a closed loop farm, growing as much of my feed as I can on farm, which in turn will require me to maintain a low stocking density.

Our herd has now grown to 7 with the addition of Olive, a beautiful Jersey who was walked on a lead from around the corner. It’s doesn’t get much better than that! We’ll be getting her in calf very shortly ready for an Autumn calving.

As of this weekend we will be dropping back to 6, with Rocket going to live with a lovely family in Woodend (I promise this is the truth, not the cover up for something more sinister). Her mother daisy is now learning to be milked and will hopefully regain some condition before calving in the second half of the year.

Everyone’s doing well, Iggy and Norma are growing into giant ratbags with a love for a good neck scratch.

Things are constantly changing, there’s ups and downs and just when you think you’ve found a rhythm another cow’s needs change. Never in my life have I had so many wins and losses in such a short time. Waking up can be hard and some times I feel I can’t do anything right, but most mornings I arrive in Harcourt to a pink sky, fog laying in the valley and while milking in the paddock I think, ‘how bloody lucky am I that I get to do this for a job’!

And Exhale

And Exhale

I breath with my herd.

This is one of my enabling actions from my Holistic Decision Making context.
I feel as though I can exhale now.
The last week I’ve been lying awake from 4:30 am, but not with the usual anxious thoughts which plague you at that hour, WHAT IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG! No, lying awake with excitement ready to get up and milk!

It’s been a long journey to get here; milking my first cow with the next generation bounding around, everyone happy and healthy. I certainly would not be here without the support and generosity of people throughout my life. Some fleeting and some lifers. There was no single defining moment which lead me here, but here is most definitely where I’m meant to be.

One of those many defining moments was last year when I first met Berta. I’d spent much of the past few years dreaming of how my future dairy was going to operate. It’s easy to dream of the insignificant details when the time is not upon you; how much detergent will I need, not, how exactly will I create enough hot water for washing and pasteurisation without costing the earth; financially or environmentally? Then last winter I went to meet a local farmer who was selling his house cow. What a cow! They don’t come better than this lady! Triple score: temperament, body genetics and udder/milk quality. Meeting Berta I felt; no matter how hard things get, if I get to spend my days with this cow, everything will be worth it. At the time I was on a 6 months working study tour of dairies up the East coast and only home for a week. I would have had to pass on Berta if it hadn’t been for this farmer going above and beyond to help me get on my feet. Getting her in calf, drying her off, holding onto her until my return and then selling me the magnificent milking machine to accompany her. Overwhelming generosity.

For 9 months we’ve been with Berta, watching her get wider, becoming besotted with her. However she did take her loneliness out on us in the form of constant licking. Then two months ago a friends two jerseys came to join us; Daisy and Millie along with Daisy’s four month old calf, Rocket. Perfect, Berta has her herd. Wait… disaster! Berta’s maternal instincts kick in and she abducts Rocket! ‘Who is this neurotic cow I don’t know chasing me around and redefining the cow lick’. Separated by a fence, everyone settled back into their own rhythm.

As Berta’s calving date got closer, I was sure she would drop early. The reality of our future started to sink in, accompanied by panic of how far off ready our processing factory was. The milk flood-gates where about to open!

The days kept passing and on her due date, like clockwork, her waters broke. Oli and I were able to watch the very efficient and focused breech birth; a chestnut heifer from a dairy short-horn sire. I named her Iggy; a tribute to my father, my inspiration to farm.

A friend told me that when you plan things you should always work out how long it will take, then double it. With the milk flowing and no factory, we decided to adopt another calf to help us drink the milk and raise a future milker. And so Norma came to join us last Friday, an angelic jersey. One lick across her face and Berta took to her.

Now that I’ve got a herd of 6 and I’m milking, it’s making all those dry Food Safety and Organic Management Plans seem worth the hours at the computer.

Things are moving.

So in times to come, when I’m waking at 4:30 anxious about what could go wrong, please remind me to go and sit and breath with my herd, ruminate a while. It may not change whats going on but it may help me to recenter and connect with all which is above and below, to move forward with a clear head.