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Together They Smell

The Prospects Of Cow Power On The Farm
I recently wrote about a certain farm smell that drifts over my town, from a nearby mega-cattle farm, every time a north wind blows.
Since writing that piece I met Carl Osentoski, executive director of the county Economic Development Corporation where we live. Carl also has been sniffing that obnoxious odor and in an industrially creative way, has been exploring ways to do something about it.
The area we are in is among the more economically depressed neighborhoods in the nation just now, with factories shut down and unemployment calculated at 12 percent, about twice the national average. That kind of situation puts a lot of pressure on people like Osentoski, whose job is to find ways to help the local economy and keep everybody working.
Osentoski said he has been talking to farm experts and exploring ways to turn that odious methane gas from big animal farms into energy . . . not only to run the farm but to power neighborhoods. He said the technology apparently exists to not only do this, but to produce a quality fertilizer, heat buildings and energize greenhouses filled with vegetables.
"We are trying to understand the technology and the costs of these systems to see if they can be any benefit to the area," Osentoski said. "We are just tinkering with this thing. We want to know who does this kind of stuff, what the costs will be, what the government guidelines are."
That process, using something called a anaerobic digester, is already being used successfully on dairy farms in other parts of the country.
"The technology uses microbes and bacteria to break down the manure into manageable by-products, including methane gas," Osentoski said. "The gas can be burned to produce electricity."
In Connecticut, brothers Matt and Freund run their 200-cow dairy operation on electricity produced from the farm's animal waste.
And in Princeton, Minnesota, Dennis Haubenschild's 760-cow dairy farm is using the same technology to produce so much power the farm is able to sell the excess. He claims his anaerobic waste digester supplies enough power to run the entire farm plus 78 average homes.
The exciting thing about this technology, Osintoski said, is that it promises to allow farmers to literally "generate" electricity as an agriculture product while reducing odor and creating a high-quality fertilizer.
Small wonder then that farm digesters are attracting wide interest as mega-farms fill more and more of the rural landscape.
According to Ag Innovation News, a web information service, the process involves the use of heat and beneficial bacteria placed with cow manure and recycled newspaper bedding in a large digester tank that one writer said looks like a long white sausage.
As the manure is heated to about 100 degrees, the bacteria helps break the manure down, causing methane gas to collect under the tank cover. After a few weeks in the digester, the manure, which is less smelly, dumps into a storage lagoon for use as fertilizer.
The captured methane is burned in a retrofitted natural gas engine, which powers an electrical generator. The heat from the operation is recycled to warm the digester and the barn floors.
The Freund farm, using a smaller version of the same system, uses gas from the digester to fuel a hot water boiler that heats the home, offices and the digester, according to a story on Environmental News Network (ENN).
But there is more. The story said the Freunds are now partnering with a fuel cell maker, Tor Energy Company, to use a fuel-cell system they believe will make enough electricity and heat to run their family farm on its own.
The Tor fuel cell uses ceramic-based electrodes that burn hot. The company believes its cell is the only one of its kind on the market that can run on methane.
If the process works, the Freund brothers believe they not only will have enough power to operate their farm, they may also be in a position to sell excess power to the local power grid.
There are two byproducts from fuel-cell electricity generation that also is expected to be a benefit on the farm. These are hot water vapor and carbon dioxide.
The Freunds say they plan to use the hot water vapor to heat the buildings, thus eliminating the need for the hot water boiler.
They also foresee pumping the carbon dioxide into greenhouses filled with vegetables and bedding plants. Plants thrive on carbon dioxide. They convert the gas back to oxygen through photosynthesis.
It all sounds like a perfect environmentally friendly plan to utilize a waste product to make power without burning coal, oil or natural gas. Instead it eliminates an obnoxious smelling methane gas from cow manure, makes power, and makes the neighbors happy.
Are the animals well cared for? Generally, from what I have seen, dairy operators take very good care of their animals. But beef, pig and chicken growers do not. These animals are forced to live brief lives squeezed in tiny smelly quarters without moving much until they are large enough to slaughter.
That is how factory farms apparently must be run. As long as people demand their meat, the producer claims he must operate this way to make a buck. It is efficient. It is inhumane. It needs to be stopped.