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Back to the future with closed-loop farming


They're building the future of farming in northern Indiana, and let's just say it looks a little like your grandfather's farm - except about a million times bigger.

Fair Oaks Dairy, Fair Oaks, Indiana, is the largest dairy east of the Mississippi with 27,000 cows. It is teaming with Bion Environmental Technologies for a new ethanol plant and manure treatment system that will become a closed-loop farming system. Bion's technology will turn cow dung into power to drive a new ethanol plant with none of the usual environmental side effects. Meanwhile, the cows will eat the wet distillers grains coming from the ethanol plant.

David Mager, spokesperson for Bion, says its technology changes manure into methane and cellulosic product to produce a high-value organic fertilizer or feed for the cattle. He says the new technology will allow livestock farmers to feed many more animals because they will no longer be limited by the amount of land they have in proportion to the amount of manure they must disperse.

"They want to use manure for fertilizer to the extent their manure management plan will allow," he says. "According to USDA, only 2% farms have sufficient land to handle phosphorus from the manure. 98% don't have enough land to agronomically assimilate the manure."

Let's say you have 40,000 dairy cows. Out one end you get the milk, and the other end - manure. This goes into an anaerobic digester that produces methane. You also get an effluent, which, until now, could end up polluting air and water. But in this system the effluent goes into a centrifuge and what comes out is a coarse, solid material which is cellulose. This materials is heated, dried and used to run a boiler. That steam goes to run a 40-million gallon ethanol plant.

So now all of your energy needs for that ethanol plant are met from the methane and coarse solids from the dairy cows. Meanwhile, those cows eat the wet distillers grains coproduced from the ethanol process.

"Your ethanol plant becomes the feed mill for the 40,000-cow dairy and the dairy becomes the power plant to power the ethanol plant," says Mager. "That's a $24 million savings over natural gas costs normally associated with a 40-million gallon ethanol plant."

The Bion treatment process takes the nitrogen, which could be a water pollutant, and converts it into nitrogen gas; it eats up all the organic materials and sequesters all of the phosphorus, another major water pollutant. Mager says all of the processes have been tested, although feed tests are ongoing.

This summer they're building a pilot plant to the scale necessary to optimize the system. They want to make sure everything from the methane produced to the ethanol and DDGs is in balance.

Change is always at our doorstep, but if this system works, it's bound to profoundly change the economics of livestock farming. That's especially true if WTO talks fall apart and farmers look for more sustainable domestic markets for their products.




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