Manure digester keys success

In 2007, Charlie, George, Tom and Mark Crave were milking 600 cows and operating an on-farm specialty cheese plant on their 1,600-acre farm near Waterloo.

The brothers wanted to expand their dairy and cheese plant, but they also wanted to install a manure digester. So the Craves partnered with Clear Horizons of Milwaukee, which built a manure digester on their farm.

“It made sense to put in a manure digester at the same time, but we couldn’t afford to expand our operation and put in a digester,” Charlie explained to a group visiting Crave Brothers Farm from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Dairy Profitability and Environmental Sustainability Conference on Feb. 9 in Madison.

“We give [Clear Horizons] our manure and waste from the cheese plant, and in return, they sell the electricity to the electric company, and they sell the solids back to us for bedding,” Charlie said.

The partnership allowed the Craves to double the size of their dairy herd to 1,200 cows, build heifer facilities to house 1,000 calves and heifers, and more than double the size of their on-farm specialty cheese plant to 25,000 square feet. They also built a new office and machine shed on the farm.

Through their partnership, the Craves buy separated solids from Clear Horizons to use for bedding their cows and heifers. Additional separated solids are sold to area farmers. Clear Horizons composts and bags the remaining separated solids as “Ener Gro” potting soil, which they sell to landscapers.

“It gave them an incentive to build the operation, and we benefit from having a manure digester without making the investment,” Charlie noted.

Electricity from the digester is used to operate the cheese plant and the farm. In addition, the farm produces enough electricity to power 250 houses each year.

“They [Clear Horizons] sell the electricity to We Energy wholesale, and we pay retail for the power,” Charlie said.

Key Points

• The Crave brothers milk 1,200 cows on their Dodge County farm.

• In 2008, they expanded their on-farm cheese plant.

• They partnered with Clear Horizons to build a manure digester.

Good as gold

But the biggest payoff for the Craves comes from the liquid manure that is stored in an on-farm lagoon.

The Craves pay a custom operator to spread the manure on their 1,600 acres of cropland, which has reduced the cost of their annual fertilizer bill to $1,200.

“This allows us to meet our manure management plan and cut our fertilizer bill to 75 cents per acre. That’s pretty slick on 1,600 acres,” Charlie said.

The Craves say the expansion and addition of a manure digester to their farm has been a win-win situation.

• Their 1,200 cows have a rolling herd average just under 30,000 pounds.

• Their award-winning specialty cheeses are sold across the country, as well as throughout Wisconsin.

• The farm and cheese plant employ 70 people, including 12 family members.

“We treat our manure for the value it offers,” Charlie told a group attending the profitability and sustainability conference in Madison on Feb. 10.

“What we are doing is not connected to cap and trade, it’s not connected to carbon credits, it’s not connected to any do-gooding,” he said. “We use a methane digester on our farm because it works well for our operation. At the end of the day, you have to make enough money to keep the lights on. We’ve got to sell milk and cheese, and Clear Horizons has to sell electricity.”

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of WISCONSIN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.