Turn­ing cow poo into power is prof­itable for US farm


For most farms, ma­nure is a pun­gent prob­lem. At Homestead Dairy, it smells like money.

The fam­ily-run Amer­i­can farm in­vested in a bio­gas re­cov­ery sys­tem which trans­forms cow poo and other waste into elec­tric­ity.

Enough elec­tric­ity, in fact, to power 1,000 homes, a ser­vice which the lo­cal util­ity com­pany pays for hand­somely. But that’s just a side ben­e­fit. “It works eco­nom­i­cally, but one of the main rea­sons we did it was to try to help take care of the odor con­trol for the neigh­bors,” said Floyd Houin, whose fam­ily has owned the farm in Ply­mouth, In­di­ana since 1945.

“The land’s im­por­tant to us also be­cause we pro­duce a crop for feed­ing cows. So we want to do ev­ery­thing we can to take care of the land and the wa­ter. We drink the same wa­ter as ev­ery­one else.”

Live­stock farms typ­i­cally store their ef­flu­ent in open la­goons and the stench does not make them very pop­u­lar with the neigh­bors.

The la­goons also have a sig­nifi- cant en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact be­cause they emit meth­ane and car­bon diox­ide — ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to cli­mate change — and can sully the ground­wa­ter if they leak or over­flow dur­ing heavy rains.

Set­ting up an anaer­o­bic di­gester — es­sen­tially a gi­ant shed that uses heat to speed up de­com­po­si­tion — cap­tures both the smell and the green­house gases.

Power One Mil­lion Homes

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency es­ti­mates that more than three mil­lion tons of green­house gas emis­sions were elim­i­nated last year by Homestead and the 246 other U.S. live­stock farms which have in­stalled bio­gas re­cov­ery sys­tems.

That’s equiv­a­lent to tak­ing more than 630,000 cars off the road.

There are about 8,000 dairy and hog farms in the United States which are large enough to make a bio­gas re­cov­ery sys­tem vi­able.

The EPA es­ti­mates they could gen­er­ate enough elec­tric­ity to power over a mil­lion homes and cut emis­sions by the equiv­a­lent of tak­ing nearly four mil­lion cars off the road.

Bio­gas re­cov­ery is also be­ing used to cap­ture meth­ane from land­fills and sewage treat­ment plants and even at craft beer com­pa­nies.

“The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is re­ally com­mit­ted to see­ing progress in this sec­tor,” said Al­li­son Costa, pro­gram man­ager for the EPA’s AgStar unit.

“Wide­spread in­vest­ment and adop­tion could help us make sig­nif­i­cant in­roads in help­ing us ad­dress some of our en­vi­ron­men­tal and energy chal­lenges.”

The prob­lem is the fi­nanc­ing, Costa said. There’s a huge up­front cost and most util­ity com­pa­nies in the United States won’t pay enough for the elec­tric­ity to make the pro­ject ap­peal­ing to a bank loan of­fi­cer.

It also re­quires a lot of main­te­nance, which many farms don’t have the man­power to man­age. But when it works, Costa said, it re­ally works.

“We’ve seen a lot of farms ex­pand and build a sec­ond one,” she told AFP.

“You just have to have some­one will­ing to love that di­gester and take care of it.”

Ryan Rogers, 31, loves his di­gester.

“There’s so many (good) things, you for­get them all,” said Rogers, who mar­ried into the Homestead fam­ily and spends about four hours a day on di­gester main­te­nance and man­age­ment.

Con­trol­ling the smell from the 70,000 gal­lons of ma­nure and urine pro­duced ev­ery day by the dairy’s 3,400 cows clearly tops the list.

Then of course, there’s the crops. The di­gester does a much bet­ter job of turn­ing the ma­nure into fer­til­izer, which means a bet­ter yield from the farm’s 4,500 acres of corn.

Once that nu­tri­ent-rich liq­uid fer­til­izer is ex­tracted, what’s left makes for some nice soft bed­ding for the cows.

And in­stead of spend­ing money to man­age the ma­nure, soon they’ll be mak­ing money off it.

Re­cover Cost in 5 Years

The fam­ily man­aged to get a grant to help cover some of the cost of the fa­cil­ity and a fa­vor­able con­tact with the lo­cal power com­pany which was look­ing to ex­pand its re­new­able energy sup­plies.

They bring in ex­tra in­come — and fuel for the gen­er­a­tors — by charg­ing restau­rants and food pro­cess­ing plants a lower rate to dump their waste than the lo­cal land­fill.

It will prob­a­bly only take about five years un­til the ini­tial in­vest­ment is fully paid off, Rogers said. And it’s work­ing so well they’re plan­ning to build a sec­ond fa­cil­ity.

“It’s def­i­nitely a grow­ing field within the United States,” said Mike Fenton of Michigan CAT, which sold the Cater­pil­lar gen­er­a­tors used by Homestead and helps them to main­tain the sys­tem.

The Euro­pean mar­ket is much more ad­vanced be­cause there are so many more sub­si­dies avail­able and the cost of elec­tric­ity is so much higher, he said.

While U.S. farm­ers may balk at the ini­tial cost — a sys­tem like the one at Homestead would run around US$6 mil­lion — Fenton said it’s a good in­vest­ment. Most farms can pay it off and start mak­ing a profit within three to five years.

“It’s a proven tech­nol­ogy that works re­ally well,” he told AFP.

(Left) Farmer Ryan Rogers checks on a gen­er­a­tor at Homestead Dairy on July 13.


(Above) Hol­stein cows are seen at Homestead Dairy in Ply­mouth, In­di­ana on July 13.

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