Biodigester offers strong payback for dairy farmer

Pennsylvania dairy farmer Steve Reinford hoped putting in a biodigester to control manure odor and nutrient runoff from his 440-cow dairy would eliminate complaints from the urban neighbors increasingly closing in on his operation.

What he didn’t imagine was that the biodigester would turn into an additional revenue stream for his farm and save him tens of thousands of dollars in utility costs. In 2011, Reinford estimates the biodigester netted his operation $300,000 in cost savings and new revenue.

“The big surprise was the value of the waste heat,” Reinford recently told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists Association in Washington, D.C. “I discovered that the waste heat could be used to heat the water that provides baseboard heating for our farmhouse.

Waste heat also now provides for heat in the shop, which uses radiant-floor heat, in storage areas, in the milking parlor and the special needs parlor.”

Key Points

• Pennsylvania farmer finds that a biodigester provides revenue stream.

• Waste heat is source of energy for home, farm and dairy.

• Food waste provides revenue and feedstock for the biodigester.

In addition, he said, he’s found there is enough heat generated to power the grain dryer and pasteurize hospital milk to feed baby calves.

The anaerobic digester, originally sized to handle the manure from 1,000 animals, generates 100% of the electricity used on the farm. Additional electricity is sold to the local utility, and provides power for about 100 homes in the area.

Key to the profitability of the digester, he said, was the discovery that there was a demand for waste-food disposal from large-scale retailers.

“Food waste, such as apples, watermelons, pumpkins and other things, has three-and-half times more energy than cow manure,” he said. “It is hard for the stores to dispose of, and the tipping fees for landfills tend to be quite high. I can handle it for a lot less per ton than the landfills charge.”

Reinford said he was excited to learn that the benefits from adding a digester to a dairy operation are there for small producers as well as for mega-dairies.

“You don’t have to be a big, huge outfit,” he said. “Scale it right, and this can be a big win for smaller 200- to 300-cow dairies.”

Manure solids processed in the digester are separated out, dried and used on the farm as stall bedding.

Even more exciting to Reinford and his wife, Gina, who are partners in the dairy, the digester business and the management of about 1,035 acres of cropland, is the fact that the operation provides opportunity for all three of their sons to work in the family business.

Son Chad, operates the calf ranching business and is preparing to install a second anaerobic digester on the ranch three miles away. He also serves as crops manager. Son Drew is feed manager for the dairy and runs the anaerobic digester business. Son Brett is the latest to return home. He has a business degree and is taking over a lot of the burden of office management from his mom.

Reinford said his total initial investment in the digester was $1.2 million, and that payback has been quick.

Financial and technical help available

Renewable energy, especially biofuels and bio-feedstocks for energy production, is a passion for Harry Baumes, director of the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the USDA Office of the Chief Economist.

Baumes spoke to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists at their recent convention in Washington, D.C., sharing a panel with Steve Reinford, a Pennsylvania dairyman and biodigester owner.

Baumes said his office has a goal of adding a digester a week to the energy mix of America, and has helped finance 70 projects in each of the last two years,

“A biodigester is something that can work well for a dairy,” Baumes told the group. “And while we have typically thought of it in terms of large dairy operations, it is becoming apparent that this is an option for the little guy as well, especially for those located close enough to metropolitan areas that they can take advantage of handling waste for food processors or food retailers.”

Biodigesters can not only reduce the carbon footprint of a dairy by reducing greenhouse gases, but they can also improve water quality and replace petroleum products for energy generation.

“We even have some communities looking into whether a biodigester might be a way to help them generate clean energy,” he said.

For information about technical and financial assistance, contact your local USDA Rural Development office.

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ADDED FUEL: Food waste from local retail outlets provides feedstock for Steve Reinford’s anaerobic biodigester, as well as a revenue source for the farm.

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POWER FROM COWS: Steve Reinford produces electricity and methane gas, as well as using waste heat from an anaerobic bio-digester that processes cow manure and retail food waste, on his Pennsylvania farm.

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HELP AVAILABLE: Harry Baumes, director of the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the USDA Office of the Chief Economist, says getting a digester a week on line is a goal of his agency.

This article published in the June, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.