By Cassie Olson, DairyBusiness.com
An impressive level of production is not all that Alliance Dairies has to offer. The farm also operates a state-of the-art methane digester which is able to convert manure into one megawatt of electricity. The methane digester is the first of its kind in the Southeastern U.S.
“Our digester supplies over 70% of the dairy’s daily electricity,” said Jan Henderson, owner of Alliance Dairies. “That is the equivalent to powering 425 homes year round.”
Anaerobic digestion is the bacteria de composition of organic matter that occurs in the absence of oxygen. The anaerobic manure digester is a long, covered pit that is filled daily with manure. The methane digester works by collecting biogas under an expandable, gas-tight cover. The gas is drawn off and fed to a generator to pro duce electricity.
The dairy is now nearly energy independent. As the farm expanded, making the decision to operate a methane digester became common sense. As owners, Henderson and her father, Ron St. John, faced skyrocketing electrical costs and under-utilized waste, and noticed room for improvement and opportunity. After further research, other benefits of install ing a digester quickly became evident.
With lower odor on the farm and the abil ity to provide fertilizer and compost for cow bedding, the family went forth with installing the digester.
Henderson says the process had a fairly quick tum-around. “Planning meetings to install the digester system began in the spring of 2011 with the start of construc tion beginning in December. The system was officially commissioned in December 2012 and was able to begin powering the farm on a continuous basis beginning
in February 2013. Finally, composting equipment went online in the summer of 2014.”
The farm knew the process wouldn’t be flawless. For this reason, reflection points offered a chance to ensure their objective of a sustainable project was being met.
“There was a community effort to con serve the stewardship of our planet, business, community and cows.”
The project was a major undertaking. Plans to implement the methane digester was collaborated with DB Kenyon Construction, DVO Anaerobic Digester, Dr. Del Bottcher of Soil & Water Technology Inc., and Fred Haddad of NFront Consulting Group. Total costs for the project were projected at $8 million. Farm Credit of Florida financed the construction, and Alliance Dairies received federal grant 1603 which covered 23% of the project’s costs.
With approximately $840,000 off their electric bill annually, the methane digester has drastically lowered Alliance Dairies’ electricity usage.
The savings have been shown a great deal. Henderson says the savings make up for the expense.
“In approximately 5 years, the electrical savings will pay for the costs of the project. To date, it is saving us around $70,000 a month. These savings will only continue as long as we have cows.”
Energy cost is not the only impact adding a methane digester has had for Alli ance Dairies. Alliance generates sellable carbon credits by their collection of CO2 gasses after the digestion process. These credits are estimated to sell between $15,000-$20,000 per year once they begin sales.
The digested solids are used as bedding, which has cut bedding costs in half at Alliance Dairies. Cow comfort and animal health have always been hallmark values within the farm. They use sand bedding for their lactating herd. Eighty percent of the sand bedding is recycled, and therefore, cleanliness of the sand is key. All used sand in the lanes is captured and then reclaimed over a 60-day period. Henderson says, “This process saves money and raw materials. The sand from the process is actually cleaner and more ideal for reusing in the beds than what can be purchased.”
Finally, labor has been cut in half. Solids on the dairy are consumed, which cuts down manure loads from four to two per day, which has focused labor on managing equipment and ensuring more effective, efficient work.
Alliance Dairies isn’t the only one seeing the methane digester’s benefits however.
“When power generation via the digester exceeds our needs, it is sold back into the grid through a net metering agreement,” said Henderson. “The community also benefits from the very notice able reduction in manure odor surround ing the farm, which is priceless.”The environmental responsibility that has resulted from Alliance Dairies’ investment has made them a strong member within the community. At annual school visits, parents, children, and school teach ers have always been shocked by the number of cows and their fresh smell.
More recently, those in attendance have commented on the lack of smell and inquiries of what led to the change.
“The community has not only benefited from the aroma,” remarked Henderson. “They were happy to hear about the electricity gained on the grid from the digester, as well.”
Alliance Dairies is currently in the process of connecting their neighboring site to the digester, which will duplicate all of the initial benefits of the original projects: odor reduction, waste management, and will economically be a sustainable saving. Had the initial methane digester not been implemented, the farm would have many more obstacles than solutions.
Henderson says the digester has led to many positive impacts within the community.
“Economically, Alliance Dairies reduced community members’ energy reliance on one single source by diversifying supply with the methane digester. This has secured a more consistent pricing sys tem because of the locked-in supply from the digester.”
After the digester was officially in stalled and operating, Alliance Dairies noticed a significant boost in employee and community morale. The surrounding community had a positive reaction, and the system garnered media coverage from the local press and major news networks. The farm has since received visitors from across the country and world.
Many farmers looking to expand their farms and employ sustainable practices have looked to Alliance Dairies for guidance. The farm has worked closely with their congressman, Ted Yoho, to properly educate and explain best management practices to other farmers. Their project is not only appreciated close to home, but across the globe, as well.
“Through distinguished practices, we were approached to replicate our dairy in Laboste, Botswana, Africa,” explained Henderson. “This international development was prompted by the demand for protein and power, both of which can be solved by creating a sustainable dairy farm.”
Because of unreliable electricity and the growing population of Africa, Alliance Dairies’ cultural diffusion will provide a sustainable model for a country currently importing over 95% of their milk. Under the trade name Milkafric, the program will serve a much greater purpose.
“Milkafric will support cows, consumers, communities, and our planet. As the resources are renewed, from crop to cow to container, Alliance Dairies has taken the first step towards the global movement of a more sustainable future,” explained Henderson.
Henderson continued by urging other farmers to follow in their farm’s footsteps.
“Through economic viability, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship, Alliance Dairies is committed to meet the guiding principles of sustainability.”
This is only shown further in Alliance Dairies’ continued dedication to supporting local youth programs. The farm has joined with local 4-H and FFA organizations, providing generous contributions through scholarships and involvement rewards. These contributions have developed the future of tomorrow through educational experiences of today, making an iconic reputation for the dairy.
Henderson also notes that those look ing to explore new technology must be patient. The learning curve for such a technologically advanced system is steep and many kinks had to be worked out during the implementation process.
“One of our biggest challenges was to complete the engineering of connecting to the electric grid,” Henderson explained. “Once completed, it became apparent how important service and availability of parts is for a project of this magnitude.
We now have dedicated 1.5 employees to the maintenance upkeep. Their electrical and mechanical background proved to be essential moving forward, and we fill these positions from within their existing company talent. Hard work and ability does not go unnoticed at Alliance Dairies, and the opportunities are endless.”
Alliance has shared their data on nu merous occasions with fellow farmers and researchers. The Farm Bureau Advisory Committee and numerous industry groups from across the world have trav eled to Trenton, Fla., to tour the facilities.
“A lesson learned is a lesson lost if not shared. For this reason, Alliance Dairies has shared the joys and discomforts with numerous industry magazines,” says Henderson. “This farm-site has become a site for the world: a lesson, and a solution.”