By Stan Maddux
PRINCETON, Minn. — The answer for struggling dairy farmers could be harvesting the 40 gallons of manure a cow produces daily to turn into fuel with demand rising for renewable energy to fight climate change.
Three Indiana dairies, including Prairies Edge Farms in Fair Oaks, are doing it already.
For about 20-years, Dennis Haubenschild has been powering his dairy farm in Princeton, Minnesota with the biogas he produces from the manure of 800 cows. Haubenschild said he rakes in tens of thousands of dollars in savings every year from the electricity he no longer has to buy from his local utility. He reduces his operating costs further by using the manure after it’s broken down by the bacteria in his digester for producing gas to fertilize his 1,400 acres of corn and alfalfa.
Haubenschild said he is now looking at possibly selling his gas to states like California that encourage use of renewable energy to reduce fossil fuel emissions if the returns from his sales would be higher than what he presently saves in operating expenses at his farm. “I’ve always said it’s only waste if we’ve wasted it,” he said. He light heartedly proclaimed California might represent the next “gold rush” for dairy farmers looking for opportunity. “If you’re willing to send it out there, they’ll buy it from you. So, it’s worth looking into.
According to the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, two large dairies in northwest Indiana are already certified for renewable energy credits in California.
Three Wisconsin dairies are producing biogas for transportation fuel and three more projects in that state are under construction.
Prairies Edge Dairy Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana has been making biogas with manure from its thousands of cows since 2011.
Dave Ramsey, operations manager at Prairies Edge Dairy Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana didn’t say if milk producers have another gold rush on their hands. He did agree demand is high for renewable fuels of any sort. “This is simply another arrow in the sustainability quiver as produces strive to deliver a responsibly sourced range of products,” Ramsey said. Prairies Edge Dairy Farms is affiliated with Amp Americas, a California-certified parent company of Renewable Dairy Fuels also in Fair Oaks.
RDF collects biogas from the manure of 16,000 cows at a number of adjacent dairy farms. The biogas is then processed into pure methane injected into pipelines for distribution. Ramsey explained producing biogas is an option to explore for larger operations better equipped to afford the initial cost. “As with any commodity, the market bears some weight in the profitability of an enterprise. At today’s technology levels, a farmer would need at least 800 head to consider this level of investment,” he said.
Haubenschild, a second generation dairy farmer, said the pay-back period from his investment was five-years. His entry into biogas production came during the 1970’s when studying in a college history course about Germany producing the fuel to avoid shortages of conventional energy during World War II.
Haubenschild said he was then successful in making biogas from manure he placed into five gallon containers during an experiment; “The digester we’ve had running since 1999 is basically World War II technology almost.”
He said it takes about 21 days for bacteria to break down the manure in his below ground digester heated to 98.6 degrees for producing gas. He once powered the entire farm with his biogas.
The size of his herd expanding to 1,500 cows has increased his need for power beyond the fuel he can produce in his digester holding manure from up to 800 cows. “There’s a lot of advantages of using another tool Mother Nature gave us is what I always say,” Haubenschild said.