Wallaces Farmer

Can methane be next home-grown fuel for farms?

Other eco-friendly biofuels outside of ethanol could power equipment and provide new revenue for farms.

Andy Castillo

May 18, 2024

3 Min Read
New Holland T6.180 on display in Washington, D.C.
POWERED BY METHANE: J. Cole Sanford, a cash crops specialist with New Holland (right, in white shirt), explains how the T6.180 methane-powered tractor works to a group of legislators at the Future of Food and Farming event in Washington, D.C.Andy Castillo

To the untrained eye, New Holland’s T6.180 tractor might look like any other farm machine rolling across a field. Up close, however, its uniqueness is apparent: It doesn’t sound like a diesel tractor because it isn’t one.

It’s powered by methane gas.

Move over, ethanol. There are new clean fuels coming on line, and many of them will provide new revenue opportunities for farmers. Of all the alternative fuels now emerging, methane may be the most promising for growers because it can be produced on farms. Farmers can recycle manure into methanol using an anaerobic digester — “and then put it into the tractor to spread the fertilizer for the corn to feed the cattle,” says J. Cole Sanford, a cash crops specialist with New Holland. “We just made the full circle right there.”

Sanford says New Holland’s methane-powered tractor has “taken off” in Europe but is still being field-tested for North American farms. The tractor made its U.S. debut at the Future of Food and Farming event in Washington, D.C., in early May.

Allen Schaeffer, executive director for the Engine Technology Forum, says the growing U.S. biofuel industry is fueled by significant dollars thanks to investors looking for lower-carbon solutions. Last year, the United States produced about 3.3 billion gallons of biodiesel — about 7% to 8% of all diesel produced domestically. The industry is on pace to surpass about 5 billion gallons by the end of 2025, according to Schaeffer.

As alternative fuels like hydrogen, ethanol, methanol and biogas gain prominence, Schaeffer says farmers should take notice because the trend could save money and provide new revenue streams. Still, adoption is probably a long ways away.

“We have a pretty good way to go because there are many challenges with infrastructure,” Schaeffer says. “Change is inevitable in the farming sector. And in so many ways it might be more incremental than we expect. It’s ultimately a cost factor and how well the replacement does the job. Is it reliable? Is it durable? Will it work on a minus 20-degree morning in North Dakota?”

Can’t predict future

New Holland is not the only original equipment manufacturer experimenting with alternative fuels.

“We’re taking a multi-technology approach and looking at everything from electrification to hybrids to alternative fuels for larger [machines],” says Warren Morris, product manager for clean energy at Agco.

While test engines have shown promise, Morris says it’s too soon to predict which fuel will best suit farming purposes. “It comes down to affordability, availability and, ultimately, acceptability of the farmer,” he says.

Producers should be aware of a fuel’s advantages and disadvantages, says Chris Walters, head of public affairs for Iveco Group in North America, which owns the U.S. powertrain brand FPT Industrial. Ethanol, for example, reduces carbon emissions but produces 30% less energy per gallon than gasoline, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  Growers using ethanol might have to store and transport more fuel to do the same amount of work.

“The real key is to weigh the trade-offs for pros and cons. Some fuels have a better profile for lowering emissions, but they don’t deliver the same density or the same fuel economy,” Walters says.

Methane-fueled tractors may find a place on America’s livestock farms someday. But the push for cleaner fuels — and the role farmers could play in that — began years ago with the advent of “gasahol.” Today, ethanol manufacturers use about 40% of the U.S. corn crop for ethanol and related coproducts.

Renewable biodiesel, made in part from soybean oil, could soon get its turn in the limelight.

Paul Winters, director of public affairs and federal communications for Clean Fuels Alliance America, says soybeans represent about half the feedstocks the industry uses; cooking oil and animal rendering make up roughly the other half.

“It is a growing market,” he adds. “It’s feeding back into the farm. It’s balancing out the market value for feed and oil so that farmers can get value from their entire crop.”

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About the Author(s)

Andy Castillo

Andy Castillo started his career in journalism about a decade ago as a television news cameraperson and producer before transitioning to a regional newspaper covering western Massachusetts, where he wrote about local farming.

Between military deployments with the Air Force and the news, he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University, building on the English degree he earned from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He's a multifaceted journalist with a diverse skill set, having previously worked as an EMT and firefighter, a nightclub photographer, caricaturist, features editor at the Greenfield Recorder and a writer for GoNomad Travel. 

Castillo splits his time between the open road and western Massachusetts with his wife, Brianna, a travel nurse who specializes in pediatric oncology, and their rescue pup, Rio. When not attending farm shows, Castillo enjoys playing music, snowboarding, writing, cooking and restoring their 1920 craftsman bungalow.

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