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updated 12/3/2012 4:53:24 PM ET 2012-12-03T21:53:24

A new geothermal energy system helps to keep turkeys raised for food comfortably warm (not oven hot) on chilly nights.

It can cool things down during sweltering weather too, since turkeys are raised year-round for sandwiches and other meals. The system, developed by University of Missouri engineer Yun-Sheng Xu and described in the MU Engineering magazine, is expected to help bring down the price of turkey meat, keeping America as the world's top turkey exporter. The environmentally and economically friendly process also improves the bird's air quality.

"This is the first application of geothermal energy in a commercial livestock operation," Xu was quoted as saying in a press release. "Our first set of performance data suggests that farmers could halve their heating and cooling costs."

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Heating and cooling are important in turkey operations because the temperature in enclosures must be kept at a toasty 90 degrees Fahrenheit while the birds are young, but lowered to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for older birds, Xu explained.

Propane fuel for temperature control units can cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars per year, he added. Propane burners in livestock barns also produce humidity and carbon dioxide, which can smother the birds.

It's also rather stomach churning to contemplate, but humidity in the bird barns moistens the foul waste from the fowl and leads to ammonia contamination of the air the birds breathe.

"Similar systems could be installed in other livestock operations," said Xu. "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.

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"The system could even be scaled down to keep a doghouse comfortable in the backyard," he added.

Here's how the system works: It uses the constant 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit of the soil a few feet beneath the surface to regulate the temperature of a liquid flowing through buried tubing. In Xu's system, the tubing is buried horizontally, as opposed to other systems that rely on vertically placed tubes, which require expensive deep digging.

An added benefit is that the system uses an artificial wetland above the buried tubes to further insulate them. According to Xu, this "wetland" provides critical habitat to amphibians, migratory birds and other wildlife.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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