Oct 6 7:45 PM

Waste from thousands of cows creates energy for an entire dairy farm

On this week’s “TechKnow,” engineer and contributor Kyle Hill visits Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind., to explore how they are creating a sustainable farming cycle by turning cow manure into renewable fuel.

“We’re taking something that potentially could be a contaminant to the environment, totally taking that out of the picture,” Fair Oaks Farms CEO Gary Corbett tells Hill. “But at the same time, [we’re] creating a new energy source for the United States... We feel pretty good about that.”

Fair Oaks Farms is home to over 36,000 cows that produce milk for distribution all over the midwestern U.S.. However, the most impressive export of the Fair Oaks cows might not be their milk. The farm recently invested $19 million into an anaerobic digester that converts the cow manure into compressed natural gas (CNG).

Filling a truck's gas tank with CNG fuel.

Mark Stoermann, Director of Operations for AMP Americas, a transportation logistics company, explains how it works: “We take two products: milk and manure. They’re both separated from the cow, the manure here in the barns and the milk in the milking parlor, and they come together as renewable natural gas on a tanker truck that then is able to deliver that milk all over the upper Midwest.”

AMP Americas pioneered the technology used in the Fair Oaks digester, a process that begins three times a day when the cows are moved to one of 11 milking parlors on the property. A giant vacuum tanker sucks the manure out of the stalls and delivers it to the digester, where it is heated. Microbes break the waste down into natural gas, which rises to the top and is piped out as fuel. The leftover waste product is re-used on the farm as fertilizer for crops such as feed corn.

“The same bacteria, the same enzymes that are in [the cow’s] gut, breaking down organic material and producing gas, do so in the tank,” Stoermann explains. “All of the nutrients stay in the liquid, so that gets returned to the land just like we’ve always used it for fertilizer in the dairy industry.”

Fair Oaks currently produces 2 million gallons of CNG fuel each year which they use to fuel their fleet of delivery trucks and complete the cycle of sustainability between farm, cow and vehicle.

“It’s a perfect circle almost, with virtually no waste,” Corbett tells Hill proudly.

As climate change inspires modifications in every major industry, Hill is inspired by the large-scale agricultural sustainability he sees at Fair Oaks Farms. Many are hopeful that farms across the country will have success adopting sustainable CNG production practices and reducing fuel costs and pollution.

“I see a lot of farms having the ability to replicate this model and turn their byproducts into real energy to help save the planet,” says Mark Maloney of AMP Americas.  

“Sustainability has always been a part of our farming operations,” Corbett explains. “We just keep taking it to different levels. To survive in the 21st century, you’re going to need sustainability, creativity, technology, innovation, to get us there.”

Corbett’s operations at Fair Oaks Farms combine these principles to create not just a sustainable agriculture operation, but an educational and fun experience for the whole family. They have an ice-cream shop, outdoor activities, guided tours of their milking parlors and more.

Fair Oaks Farms CEO Gary Corbett and Kyle Hill spend time with a young calf.

“The opportunity just to interact with people like we are, to create this ‘edu-tainment’ center if you will—the things we’re doing with the environment, the things we’re doing with our animals—this is just a nirvana for anybody that’s involved in farming and agriculture,” Corbett says.


Watch "TechKnow," Sundays at 7:30PM ET/4:30PM PT on Al Jazeera America.


[Correction: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated that CNG was not a carbon-based energy source.]



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