The Science of Sustainability

Harnessing The Hidden Power of Cow Manure

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EcoDairy Feature Photo 02It takes two days to train a cow to milk itself. This may sound like a farmer’s utopia, but at Bakerview EcoDairy, a robotic milker is just one of many dairy farm innovations being put to use.

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Bakerview EcoDairy's anaerobic digester stretches 60 feet long and converts methane gas from cow manure into electricity for use on the farm.

Bill Vanderkooi, president and CEO of the Bakerview EcoDairy farm, seeks out all of the latest technologies to help him run his operation, which hosts an onsite market and agricultural education center. Armed with a master’s degree in animal science, Vanderkooi opened the 80-acre farm near Abbotsford, British Columbia, in June of 2010. He has since established himself as a pioneer among small-scale, sustainable farm owners.

An anaerobic digester is one of the key technologies that Vanderkooi uses in his quest to reduce his farm’s ecological footprint. This machine turns the methane gas released from cow manure into electricity. About 65 percent of cow manure is composed of methane, making it an abundant energy resource. Over the course of a year, Bakerview EcoDairy is able to offset a third of the energy needed to operate the farm, thanks to the digester and a small herd of 50 cows.

So, how does anaerobic digestion work?

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Image courtesy of Nethy Energy. Click to enlarge.

Before entering the digester, manure is heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the perfect temperature to prime the appetite of picky microorganisms. Pistons push the hot manure into the main chamber where the microorganisms feast.

The manure breaks down into a biogas bubble and a mixture of solids and liquids. The bubble, mostly methane gas, can be harnessed and used to fuel an engine and generate electricity. The whole process takes 21 days. The leftover solids and liquids are filtered and used for cow bedding and fertilizer.

“Farmers in BC are very interested in anaerobic digestion,” says Peter Torenvliet, the farm’s operations manager. Torenvliet adds that Bakerview EcoDairy established “a first of its kind on-farm anaerobic digestion system that is designed to be integrated into commercial dairy farms.”

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Its contribution to the greenhouse effect is over 20 times more potent than that of carbon dioxide. On a typical farm, cow manure is spread on fields where the methane gas seeps out of the manure and into the atmosphere. Digesters can help combat methane release by burning the gas and converting it to carbon dioxide. The digester captures the methane before it has a chance to escape into the atmosphere in its pure form.These digesters do more than generate a sustainable source of electricity for commercial farms. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Solid by-product

The digesting process creates an odorless, solid by-product. Bakerview EcoDairy uses this by-product for cow bedding.

There’s another perk, too.

Besides generating electricity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the anaerobic digestion process eliminates nearly all cow manure odors.

Many small farmers struggle to afford the new technology, but increased popularity and demand are helping make digesters more accessible. Soon more small farms like Bakerview EcoDairy should be able to take advantage of this technology.

“I am proud to see clean, on-site [electricity] generation for our demonstration dairy,” says Vanderkooi, “We pride ourselves on being a responsible and sustainable organization and I appreciate the opportunity we have to educate the public on environmentally and animal-friendly innovations in a fully operational farm.”


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Category: Blog, Chemistry, Energy, Engineering, Environment, Food, Sustainable Food

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Sarah Sanborn

About the Author ()

Sarah Sanborn joins QUEST Northwest from the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. She has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and a variety of citizen science projects in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring of 2013, Sarah was awarded the UW Environmental Leadership Scholarship given to those who represent leadership, integrative thought and action, and vision of how they hope to make a positive difference in the world.
  • Dr.Alzzs

    Not help ful please put properties of dung so i can pass in my test

  • Maggie

    Several years ago, I discovered composted manure bedding. It took awhile to get this going at our barn but to our delight, composted horse manure bedding works!……no odor, way less money and the horses love it. We have a large run-in with 24/7 access. One mare rolls in it the minute I get it tilled. Using composted manure isn't necessarily less work, at least in my experience, but the extra work is worth it! This will be our first winter, which will be a good test and the opportunity to improve our methods. Thanks to vet Karen Hayes, author of"The Perfect Horsekeeper" my bible for horse care, I have discovered a ton of many useful tips to make our six horses' lives more comfortable and healthy. Maggie Smith, Pittston, ME

  • Corclen

    So interesting! Thanks for covering, Sarah.

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