Geothermal Systems Keep Turkeys Comfy

Engineered to provide constant barn temperatures for commercially produced turkeys, a geothermal system prototype might also be scaled to fit other livestock operations.

by Dani Yokhna
The geothermal system created by Yun-Sheng Xu of the University of Missouri uses horizontal tubing instead of vertical tubing, which require deep digging. Photo courtesy University of Missour (
Courtesy University of Missouri
The geothermal system created by Yun-Sheng Xu of the University of Missouri uses horizontal tubing instead of vertical tubing, which require deep digging.

While Americans heated up ovens to cook turkeys and sides in preparation for Thanksgiving meals, a geothermal energy system developed by a University of Missouri engineer kept live turkeys toasty despite the chilly autumn weather. In a prototype facility, environmentally and economically friendly geothermal energy is now keeping turkeys comfortable in both cold and hot weather. The geothermal system reduces utility costs for the farmer, which could bring down the price of turkey meat and keep America as the world’s top turkey exporter. Using geothermal energy also improves the turkeys’ air quality.

“This is the first application of geothermal energy in a commercial livestock operation,” says Yun-Sheng Xu, associate research professor at MU’s College of Engineering. “Our first set of performance data suggests that farmers could halve their heating and cooling costs. We have five units installed at the test farm. Other farmers could begin installing units on their turkey farms as soon as next year for use next winter.”

Heating and cooling is important in turkey operations because the temperature in their enclosure must be kept at 90 degrees F while the turkeys are young but lowered to 70 degrees F for older birds. Propane fuel for temperature-control units can cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars per year. Propane burners in livestock barns produce humidity and carbon dioxide, which can smother the turkeys. Humidity in the barns moistens the fowls’ waste and leads to ammonia contamination of the air the turkeys breathe.

“Similar systems could be installed in other livestock operations,” Xu says. “It may work even better in a chicken coop, since they use solid walls as opposed to the curtains used to enclose turkey barns. Pig- and cattle-rearing facilities could benefit from the inexpensive hot water produced using a geothermal system. The system could even be scaled down to keep a doghouse comfortable in the backyard.”

Once a geothermal unit is installed, the operation and maintenance time and costs are much lower than operating a fossil-fuel-powered system. Geothermal systems use the constant 55 to 65 degrees F of the soil a few feet beneath the surface to regulate the temperature of a liquid flowing through buried tubing. Xu’s design is cheaper to install than other geothermal systems. In his system, the tubing is buried horizontally, as opposed to other systems that rely on vertically placed tubes, which require expensive deep digging.

Using Xu’s system, a turkey farm can be both more economical and better for the environment than a farm run on fossil fuels. Geothermal energy produces no greenhouse gases and isn’t dependent on wind or sunlight. In addition to this, the system uses an artificial wetland above the buried tubes to further insulate them. The wetland provides critical habitat to amphibians, migratory birds and other wildlife.

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