Farm of the future

The Native American tribes that hunted the plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains for most of the last millennium are often held up as models of wastelessness (a word I just invented) for, among other things, their innovation in using virtually every part of the animal. Those of us who saw Dances with Wolves will recall how this idea was juxtaposed against the wastefulness of modern American society, when a misty-eyed Kevin Costner gazed over an entire herd of buffalo slaughtered by white men for only their hides.

Now, hundreds of years after the plains hunters set their example, modern society is gradually coming to grips with the fact that it needs to move back to a system in which virtually nothing is wasted. But the task may in some ways be more daunting than it was for the Lakota, given that there may be 50 times more people in North America than there were 200 years ago. More importantly, much of the population alive today in the United States grew up during a time of relative abundance with little consideration for waste or excess presenting a difficult cultural hurdle to overcome.

Enter the ingenuity of American business. The George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy in Outlook, Washington maintains a herd of about 4,500 cows. Cows in Washington state are some of the most productive in the country, producing up to 10 gallons of milk per day. But they also produce a lot of waste the average dairy cow generates over 100 pounds of waste per day. This can have a detrimental impact on the environment in a number of ways, but given that manure is rich in nutrients, it also presents a number of opportunities.

The DeRuyter Dairy takes advantage of these opportunities, and in many ways is a model for manure management (and optimization). Having visited there last month, I saw it all first hand. Here are the various products that the dairy produces from the waste stream:

1. **Carbon Credits**: The manure is collected via a drainage system into an anaerobic digester tank. There, it breaks down over a period of 21 days, releasing methane gas that is captured by a piping system. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide), making its capture and destruction eligible for carbon credits which in the case of the DeRuyter project are purchased by TerraPass.

2. **Electricity**: Methane is also the main constituent in natural gas, meaning that it can be used as fuel. So the dairy uses this gas to power two internal combustion engines that generate renewable electricity for sale to the grid.

3. **Phosphorus**. After 21 days, two products come out of the back side of the digester tank. One is effluent (fluid) that DeRuyter sends to a series of processing tanks, one of which captures phosphorus from the waste stream. Phosphorus (in this case, natural organic phosphorus) is a chemical element used in a variety of everyday products.

4. **Liquid Fertilizer**: The remaining effluent, still rich in nutrients, is used by the farm as valuable fertilizer for the fields also managed by the farm.

5. **Solid Fertilizer**: The other substance that emerges from the digester tank is a solid known as digestate. The dairy uses a novel in-bag composting system to stabilize this digestate so that it can be bagged and transported for sale as a solid fertilizer in stores.

This begins to look a lot like the lesson that the Lakota have taught us to use everything and waste nothing. If we are going to move to a zero waste society, someday all farms and truly all operations and businesses of any kind will have to look like this. Welcome to the Farm of the Future.

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  1. Teresa Hill - May 4, 2011

    I hope that the optimization of the farm includes, as a first principle, a high standard of humane care for the cattle. It is not mentioned in this article.

  2. Anonymous - May 4, 2011

    Hopefully the literal structure os the waste fertilizer is not destroyed during the processing: organic farming may at some point rely upon supplimental fertilizers but those should be rich in carbon so they add so soil structure. Raw manure usually contains undigested portions of grain and this is the component that adds to soil structure.

  3. Wayne Boyer - May 4, 2011

    To collect all the waste from the cows, they can’t live in the natural environment, such as fields. This requires lots of infrastructure to use it for 99% of our cows. The anaerobic digester has more installation expenses, and maintenance expense, since the digested gases are a little corrosive. There is added cost and maintenance to scrubs the gas, making it clean enough to burn in an engine.
    My point: it’s great to convert methane to electricity, but it comes with the costs of infrastructure and maintenance.

  4. Barbara - May 4, 2011

    I’m curious about what happens to our gardens when we use cow manure on them? Does anyone know how much salt is added to our soil from the cows licking the salt blocks? Please send me an answer to my Email. Thanks

  5. kirk Nevin - May 4, 2011

    Barbara… You really don’t want to know too much about this dairy operation. The cows are more machine than animal, and they’re treated that way. I pray every day I won’t be reincarnated as a dairy cow in ‘modern’ America.

  6. Toni - May 7, 2011

    Wow! The Care2.com community was just discussing this because some scientific organization just reported that animal waste was producing more pollution than all our automobiles and I suggested we harness this infinite supply of poop. So glad to see someone is on top of this!

  7. Wayne Boyer - May 9, 2011

    Barbara, anaerobic digestor ‘sludge’ has been studied with gardening and the plant benefits/hazards. The municipal studies were/are examining a different list of ingredients than the feedlot studies. I worked with this topic in the 1970’s. Garden and farming applications of the sludge meant that concentrations of these ingredients CAN manifest in the plant tissue. I don’t remember any examples; I’m just saying this has been intensively studied by botanists, for decades. Some municipal sludge is called aerobic sludge.
    Use google, looking for more technical articles. The technical terms are ‘civil engineering’, ‘municipal sludge’, digestor, ‘feedlot sludge’, ‘plant absorption’ [perhaps] , concentration, contaminants, PPM, PPB, etc. The last 2 stand for parts per million, and parts per billion.

  8. Edna Litten - May 9, 2011

    Having 4,500 cows on one farm is hardly an example of living in harmony with nature. It’s just a more efficient CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) and not likely to be a source of particularly wholesome food.

  9. Isabel - May 9, 2011

    But the animals must also go outside in the fields and not stay in the whole time. And above all, they need kind treatment, no more abuse!

  10. Julia - May 9, 2011

    Hi everyone,
    Thanks for your comments and input. Because we have an entire projects listing dedicated to providing details about all of our projects, we didn’t go into as much detail here about the state of farm operations as perhaps we should have. We’ve also published comments in the past that have addressed similar questions, so I’m going to borrow some of my carbon colleagues’ notes on this:
    1. On the broader implications of large scale farming on the environment, animal welfare and worker rights: regardless of how you feel about large-scale farming the manure from large dairies can create massive greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully we can all agree that controlling those emissions is in the best interest of the environment. The anaerobic digester installed will destroy thousands of tons of green house gas emissions every year and we believe it deserves support and encourage all large-scale farms to install similar technologies.
    2. The above said, this is a family owned dairy with a rich history in Washington. The DeRuyter family has put a strong emphasis on animal welfare (the happier the cow the more milk she produces) and run a large educational program for local school kids (and adults too!). It

  11. Carol Todd - May 10, 2011

    Many people are going to almond and soy milk these days, myself included, because of “factory milk cows.” I cannot see where it is humane to keep a cow pregnant, take her calf immediately away, and milk her to death day and night. Some cows may get to go outside, but the majority do not. Milk doesn’t taste so good when you think of all this.

  12. Gina Marchel - May 10, 2011

    Your last line – “Hope that helps”? Helps the poor animals who are tortured every day of their lives,(as long as they can give the amount of milk required), never get to roam outside, have their babies taken away and tortured before being killed??? Ah yes, “humane farming of happy cows”!!! Give us a break, we are not buying this crap!!!

  13. Dave Van Lon - May 11, 2011

    The example of the DeRuyter Family is replicated throughout American Agriculture. When farmers like my family plant the rich ground we want to use the animal waste because it is the best form of fertilizer that the plants can use to grow. The majority of farmers don’t want to use too much fertilizer. After years of scientific research we know how much fertilizer is needed for the plant to grow. The nutrients from animal waste is more readily available to the plant. As far as the treatment of animals we truly want the animals to be healthy and happy and they will grow strong and give us healthy food. Yes animals are given to us by our creator to harvest when they are mature to give us protein. I would encourage the readers to go to humanwatch.org to get the real facts of what groups like HSUS are all about. They don’t protect animals, their money goes to lobbyists. They spend less than 1% of your donations for local animal welfare and the majority goes to highly paid folks in DC to lobby for animal rights. The farm workers that abuse animals are not friends of the farmer. They should not be working with animals. I love to show people what life is like on our farm. Like the DeRuyter family we welcome any of you to visit. This summer look for a nearby “Breakfast on the farm” event. For a few hours of a Saturday morning you can see what goes on up close and personal on a typical American Farm.

  14. john - May 11, 2011

    No matter what side of this argument you come from the damage done to the global environment and human populations by the scale of livestock farming necessary to meet global demand is just not acceptable.

  15. Isabel - May 19, 2011

    The human animal is the worst and more cruel that exist on earth. This human animal does not deserve to live on earth but all the not human animals do.

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