Straight talk on cow power

Gassy cows

In a recent Op-Ed article (“A Load of Manure,” New York Times, March 4th), Nicollete Hahn Niman (yes, as in Niman Ranch beef) argues that biomass energy projects don’t make sense because they encourage industrial-scale cattle operations and don’t yield much in the way of environmental benefits. TerraPass invests heavily in biomass, so naturally we feel these serious charges bear careful analysis.

First, the basic science. U.S. methane emissions amounted to just less than one-tenth of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 according to the EPA. In absolute terms, emissions of methane are much lower than carbon dioxide.

But pound for pound methane has 22 times the heat-trapping potential of CO2. Of the 545 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent methane emitted in the U.S. each year, roughly one third of that comes from the livestock industry. Much of that methane is produced by fermentation inside the cows’ stomachs — not a whole lot we can do about that so long as people are eating cheeseburgers. But nearly 40 million tons of CO2 equivalent methane are released from anaerobic fermentation that occurs after the cows have done their business and when the manure is being stored in uncovered lagoons — a common practice on larger dairy and cattle farms.

When TerraPass buys a Carbon Financial Instrument from one of the methane digester projects in the TerraPass portfolio (such as the family-owned, 600-cow Haubenschild farm in Minnesota), it is providing a payment to support the investment and operation of equipment to capture the methane produced in these manure storage pits and combust it to produce electric power. This electricity is from a renewable source — cow manure — and therefore is carbon neutral. As a benchmark, if all the manure lagoons in the U.S. were equipped with methane digesters, it would be the equivalent of taking over 10 million cars off the road per year.

So those are the hard numbers on methane digesters and global warming. What about the “big farms” argument that Niman leveled against the digesters? Do digesters really encourage the industrialization of the cattle industry?

Many people have a warm place in their heart for the idyllic family farm and buy organic foods for the health and environmental benefits. However, if we’re going to tackle methane emissions we have to look a bit farther than the farmer’s market. The reality is that there are already a whole lot of big farms out there, and this is where the bulk of the country’s milk and meat (and methane) production comes from.

The trend toward industrialization in the cow business is all about scale economies, and has nothing to do with methane digesters. At Haubenschild, for example, less than 1% of farm revenues come from the digester. Without support from offset purchasers like TerraPass, farms would have little incentive to invest in the digesters and the methane would keep going right up into the atmosphere. It’s an emissions reductions opportunity we can hardly afford to ignore.

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  1. Kati Gillespie - March 15, 2006

    Personally, I think it’s the so-called argument by Niman Ranch which is the biggest pile of bovine biomass. I look at it as just one more reason not to buy their products. The quality and all-natural status of their meat isn’t any better than that of Maverick Ranch in Denver, Co., but it costs 4 times as much. One pound of Niman Ranch beef (the cut used for roast beef)costs $16 at my local organic food co-operative. The same cut of Maverick Ranch beef costs $4. That price difference is enough to make anyone have a cow.
    Maverick Ranch beef is free-range, largely grass-fed with no pesticides on anything the cattle eat, raised using techniques of sustainable agriculture, non-GMO, not given any hormones, steroids, or antibiotics, independently certified as humanely treated, and never fed any animal by-products that can cause the spread of BSE, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or “Mad Cow disease.” In addition, Maverick Ranch beef is processed in extremely hygenic conditions using an organic, citrus-based cold water rinse that kills 99% of all pathogens including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. Coli 0157:H7. It is guaranteed free of any residue of antibiotics, steroids, or pesticides, contains 50-85% less saturated fat than commercial USDA choice beef, and is the official supplier of the U.S. Olympic training centers.
    Maverick Ranch is run by the Moore family.If they can produce such high-quality meat at reasonable prices, it makes me wonder what the Niman Ranch people are doing that causes their products to cost so much more. Also, in blind taste tests, beef connoisseurs preferred Maverick Ranch beef over Niman Ranch, citing the former’s tenderness, juiciness, and rich, beefy taste.
    Maverick Ranch also raises bison, pigs, and chickens and they make the best bacon I’ve ever eaten, crispy, crunchy, and tasting of real bacon, instead of the salt, cloying smoke and artifical maple flavor that plagues most bacon. Their bacon is also uncured, low-sodium, free from nitrates and nitrites, and contains no preservatives, additives, flavorings or colorings of any kind. It’s $5.99 a pound; the Niman Ranch bacon is $14.99.
    I think Niman Ranch’s excuse for not using the large amounts of bovine biomass as a source of renewable energy is clearly a bum steer. I would strongly suggest that Terrapass contact Maverick Ranch at and discuss the biomass project with Mr. Roy R. Moore, Jr. or one of the other members of the Moore family, hopefully they could also use the bison biomass as well as the bovine variety.

  2. Chad Freckmann - March 16, 2006


  3. Dale Hanks - March 16, 2006

    Wow Chad, thanks for the info. I am going to check that out.
    Initially I agree, I don’t want to support huge farms either, but there are going to be there anyway, if we can make sustainable energy from by-products lets do it, if only for the short term.
    We do not have to have only one solution, just solutions will be fine with me. Lets reduce our dependance on foreign oil, make the world a nice place, and stop being so inefficient.

  4. Anonymous - March 17, 2006

    Typical social problem here, Let’s beat up on our fellow Americans for developing a way to stop our dependence on foreign oil and countries, plus another typical response of a wealthy American trying to control the other wealth in the country- oh wait a minute, farmers I know of aren’t rich and they certainly don’t read the NEW YORK TIMES. What’s that about Black Kettles?

  5. Anonymous - March 19, 2006

    What’s so wrong with “huge farms” anyway? In any other business it’s considered important to increase the scale of the operation to maximise efficiency, and by any measure the “huge farms” are just not that large in comparison to the overall size of the industry.
    I often feel that people just have it in for farmers per se, and park their objective critical faculties on a shelf in favour of unhinged “touchy-feely”, unbalanced and purely subjective romantic notions of down-home small farms being more valid just because, oh, it feels right! Surely any question of scale should be totally secondary to the question of the quality of the product, environmental approach and good animal husbandry; all things which can just as well be addressed by “huge farms” as by small ones.
    In fact sometimes it is easier to get these things right in a bigger operation which can cover the on-costs of these more eeasily than the smaller operations which struggle more with their profitability.
    I have to admit to a vested interest here – we are probably not a vast farming operation by US standards – 6,000 acres in the UK – but we really care about how we do things and in particular the quality of the husbandry of our animals. What’s more, ALL the farmers I know over the county (some 400,000 acres) are equally concerned about how well they farm – we often get together and discuss and debate these matters – irrespective of the seize of their business.
    Added to this, the government cross-compliance measures which are now required in order to get subsidies have had a further beneficial effect on the impact of farming on the environment, something that is generally totally accepted by farmers as being good and necessary for the benefit of all.
    So where is the wicked result of the “huge farms” that is regularly implied? One thing that is also common amongst fellow farmers is despair at the way in which we are regularly demonised by the ill-informed public and media. Why?
    We’re as concerned about the environment and animal welfare as anyone, probably much more so because it is our life and livelihood, and we have chosen to enter into it because we love the countryside and the animals in it. For the vast majority of farmers, whatever the size of their farms, the business motivation is largely secondary to this.
    I wish people would recognise this more often and realise that for most environmental and animal husbandry initiatives they are pushing at an open door with most farmers.

  6. Anonymous - May 8, 2006

    I think the key to helping the environment is finding a way to turn our wastes/exhausts into fuel. If they could get a car that runs on methane or chlouroflourocarbons, global warming could be almost eliminated completely. Carbon Dioxide may be more prevelant in the atmosphere, but it does much less damage than methane or CFCs. Just eliminating these gasses is not in the intrests of most companies. The only way for it to work is for it to also be a profitable source of moola.

  7. april - January 24, 2007

    what egcacly dose cow power do for us

  8. april - January 24, 2007

    that i now i love cows but i will never make power from there crap
    thank you for listening april

  9. Adam Stein - January 24, 2007

    Hi April,
    Cows release a lot of methane as part of their digestive process. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. To generate “cow power,” this methane is captured and burned. Burning it has two benefits: it prevents the methane from reaching the atmosphere, and it generates a renewable form of electricity.
    – Adam

  10. Rich - April 15, 2007

    I have an acquaintance in Ukraine with a herd of 5,000 swine, which will more than double (to 11,000) by the end of summer 2007. He needs to deal with the manure, and is looking for a cost effective biofuel-producing solution. Systems for an operation the size of his that I have read about online seem to cost upwards of a million $USD or more. Such an amount is probably well beyond his reach. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  11. OJHB - May 6, 2007

    I have no idea whether you will get this, but feel free to drop me an email: obruce at coa dot edu about this sort of project. I am doing a lot of research on methane offsetting options – your acquaintance in the Ukraine is the sort of project that I would be interested in looking into.

  12. Small Farmer - July 23, 2008

    CAFO waste streams are so large and contaminated that methane digesters mitigate only a small fraction of their environmental damage. Equipment costs (U.S. EPA Office of Air and Radiation, Winter 2002) and maintenance for conversion to energy are high. The biogas must have ammonia, moisture, and particulate pollution (dust) removed, and then be compressed. It requires additional cleaning if it is to be sent into a natural gas pipeline.
    Most environmental damage caused by CAFOs, however, remains unabated. Excess nutrients which run off from waste lagoons or land-applied waste residuals suffocate the life out of our waters. The volume of solid waste remaining is not significantly diminished and requires proper disposal (Iowa State University et al. 2002). The solid waste is often land applied as “fertilizer” or “soil conditioner” but can pose problems because anaerobic digestion does not remove antibiotics and heavy metals passed by dosed swine and poultry. In addition, although pathogen numbers decrease, the decrease may be ephemeral as the pathogens regrow (Gibbs et al. 1997). Numerous studies have demonstrated that these toxic and pathogenic contaminants are entering the environment in substantial concentrations (Giger et al. 2003, Huang et al. 2001, Kolpin et al. 2002, Union of Concerned Scientists et al. 2002). Further, digesters pose a risk of explosion and create both nitrogenous and sulfurous gases which may be emitted. In sum, the potential for methane digesters to partially mitigate some of the extensive and pervasive damage caused by CAFOs does not justify the use of this technology as a basis to support the development of new CAFOs. Existing CAFOs may reduce the problems they are currently causing by use of methane digesters. However, they should be installed at the cost of the CAFO owner and not from public subsidy.