SUNNYSIDE — One by one, Dan DeGroot points out the small changes he has made to his dairy, Skyridge Farms, improving energy efficiency, cleanliness and safety inch by inch over the past 10 years.

New fans, light fixtures replaced a few at a time and a master control panel all add up to substantial savings in both energy and money, he said.

All this time, he figured the relatively inexpensive upgrades were simply business decisions made in the course of operating a 2,800-head dairy.

Little did he know the improvements would earn him national recognition for environmental stewardship late last month at the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards in Washington, D.C. He was surprised, both when his cooperative, Darigold, nominated him and when he received the award from Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes new dairy farming techniques.

“These are a lot of things a lot of other dairies can do,” said DeGroot, the owner of Skyridge Farms, north of Sunnyside.

The center lauded the methods as “holistic.”

“Skyridge Farms is proof that small steps add up,” said Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president, in a news release.

DeGroot’s was one of three dairies sharing the award, according to the center’s Website. The others were from Nebraska and Wisconsin. In all, the center gave awards in four categories.

In 2012, the judges picked from roughly 40 nominees, said Lynne Schmoe, director of industry communications for the Washington Dairy Products Commission, the organization that nominated DeGroot. She was unsure how many applied this year.

Schmoe said the judges at the Innovation Center heavily weighed improvements that can easily be replicated by other dairies.

“They are things that just about any farmer can apply,” Schmoe said.

After renovating his milking barn in 2003, DeGroot’s most expensive single improvement was the installation of a programmable logic controller, a computerized circuit board that controls fans and soaker nozzles based on temperature. It also controls milk-line flush systems, lights and a variety of dairy functions automatically. DeGroot wires more operations to it every year.

In 2003, he was one of the first dairy owners in the Northwest to use one, he said. Today, he figures there are 25 to 30 in the region.

The system cost about $15,000, plus a little more for the programming.

He’s not claiming the upgrade was cheap, but said his “little things” approach contrasts with a major investment by his neighbor, Dan DeRuyter, who spent $3.8 million on an anaerobic digester that harvests the methane byproduct of manure and converts it into electricity. Both investments were an attempt to save both money and energy over the long run. They only differ in scale, he said.

Long-term approach

DeGroot has made little improvements an art at his dairy on Scoon Road, where landscaping is neatly tended and signs warn employees and visitors to rinse off before entering the milking barn.

For example, when shopping for lights, he chose energy-efficient models designed to reduce shadows. The overhead lights fill his milking barn with a cool, soft glow that illuminates the udders of cows just as well as the backs.

The upgrade improved conditions for workers and color-blind cows, which can become skittish at shadows because, to them, they look like menacing holes.

In all, the lights cost between $4,500 and $6,000, spread out of two or three years.

This week, he finished installing 12 new overhead cooling fans in three of his five barns, replacing 72 panel fans per barn he used to have on the walls — structures that stretch about 300 yards. He got the idea after an energy audit by Washington State University.

The move cut his electric bill from $2,500 per month to $150. They’re also quieter, making cows more comfortable and, therefore, productive, he said.

DeGroot was also the first client to export manure in the form of compost through Organix, a Walla Walla firm that ships the material throughout the Northwest for use as landscaping and crop fertilizer.

“He was client No. 1,” said Russ Davis, co-owner of Organix, which now composts and ships for 16 Yakima County dairies.

Manure is the hot-button issue in the Yakima Valley, one of the leading milk producers in the nation.

Though they haven’t singled out DeGroot, environmentalists contend the Valley’s large dairies are unsustainable and have accused five of them in federal lawsuits of polluting groundwater by allowing manure to leak through storage lagoons and over-applying it to fields.

DeGroot hopes his efforts will help the entire industry improve its practices. He’s pleased — and a little surprised — the industry’s innovators have noticed, so he’ll take the pat-on-the-back.

“Sometimes, you got to stop and look behind you,” he said.

• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or rcourtney@yakimaherald.com.