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Agriculture Cargills third manure-to-biogas operation begins at Idaho dairy farm

Published on March 29th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Cargill Generates Sustainable Biogas from Cow Pies

March 29th, 2010 by  

Cargills third manure-to-biogas operation begins at Idaho dairy farmIt looks like our energy future is at least partly in the hands of cows, now that agribusiness giant Cargill has joined the manure-to-biogas gold rush.  The company has just announced that its second biogas project is up and running at the Bettencourt Dairy B6 Farm in Jerome, Idaho.   Using manure produced by the farm’s 6,000 cows, the biogas project is generating enough renewable methane to make electricity for about 1,100 typical homes.  That’s just the latest installation in a trend that is seeing manure-to-biogas facilities popping up on farms across the United States like mushrooms after a rain.


This is Cargill’s third foray into dairy cow biogas in Idaho.  The venture also boosts the company’s involvement in the global renewable energy market, because it will generate about 28,000 tons of carbon emissions offsets.  It underscores how rapidly the renewable energy sector is growing from small scale experimental roots  into a fully commercialized global market force that is chewing away at the dominance of fossil fuels.

Cow Pies and Biogas

The basic process for producing biogas from animal waste is called anaerobic digestion.  It has been around for at least thirty years and is fairly common in municipal wastewater treatment plants (yes we count as animals).  The process involves enclosing manure in hermetically sealed chambers called digesters, where bacteria break down organic matter.  It’s the same thing that happens in nature only it happens in a tightly controlled environment, resulting in a far more quick and efficient process.  The end result is  methane gas, which can be burned in generators to create electricity.  New York State is aggressively promoting biogas technology as a money saver for small dairy farms; it provides renewable electricity to run equipment at the farm, it can produce high-value fertilizer for use on site or for sale off site, and it virtually eliminates the need to pay for off site manure disposal.

Biogas, Greenhouse Gasses and Water Quality

On a national level, the U.S. EPA has been urging the agricultural sector to adopt more biogas technology in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent environmental damage from excess manure.  Biogas facilities are becoming particularly important in watershed areas where stepped-up manure control is needed to preserve water quality.  Biogas facilities could also help reduce demand for fossil fuels – which in turn could help prevent environmental damage caused by fossil fuel extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing and mountaintop coal mining.  If the carrot doesn’t work, there’s always the stick: hog producer Premium Standard Farms is facing a jury-awarded $11 million fine for environmental and public health problems relating to a factory farm operation, where massive amounts of manure that could have been recycled as biogas and fertilizer was instead dumped on open ground, untreated.

Piggybacking the New Green Economy

Cargill’s move into the carbon emissions market through dairy farms parallels a similar venture by Desert Hills Dairy of Nevada, which was the first dairy farm in that state to build a manure-to-biogas system.  Like Cargill, Desert Hills is also leveraging the farm’s reduced greenhouse gas emissions to enter the cap-and-trade carbon markets.  Nevada Hills also anticipates that the new biogas digester will enable it to expand operations without running afoul of environmental regulations.  It’s a pretty compelling demonstration of how an industry that’s been around for oh say a few thousand years can  piggyback onto – and thrive under –  new transformational energy trends that are propelling us into the future.

Image: Calf by iLoveButter on flickr.com.

Update:  For more information about manure-to-biogas systems check out the U.S. EPA’s sustainable agriculture program, AgSTAR.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Athenalea22

    Love this article! I’m just wondering, is the numbers given (6,000 cows per 1,100 homes, and therefore offsetting 28,000 emissions) per year?

  • Anonymous

    Imagine! An American family with a sustainable sized house, small enough to have a payable mortgage, garden out back, super-insulation in the walls, and a methane burning engine making heat and electricity at the same time – like they do in Germany! The “Great American Corporate and Capitalist Propaganda Whore’s” ridiculous “American Dream” and her “sales pitch bull Shiite”, and McMansions with SUV’s and a swimming pool, are soon to die, and reality is soon to return to this land. Realistic, Diesel/hybrids for commuting still pollute less than gasoline cars, and CNG/hybrids will even do better, (Compressed Natural Gas) Practical rechargeable cars, smaller, made of plastics, are not far off either. Can America do this? China is not going to give her the choice! Proverbs 22:7 ! The Jews gave us their history, their Wisdom From The Ages. We did not listen, now the Chinese call the shots, have the economic power to destroy even our U.S. Dollar. Now we must adjust our lifestyle to suit them.

  • Andrew

    Furthermore, Cargill is an evil company that controls more than a fourth of the meat-packing industry. They have been one of the most central players in the inelegant industrialization of our food system that is leading to the permanent destruction of our natural capital. They cheat their workers, advertising jobs in mexico, only to cooperate with local law enforcement to deport them and their families one at a time, so as not to disturb the production line. They wash our meat in ammonia, and fatten us with GMO-based corn-fed “food” that leads to cancer, heart disease, and reproductive harm.

  • Rick

    Cute cow in the picture, but that is a very misleading image. Unfortunately, this technology will have at is base the cruel treatment of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) and a flawed assumption that cows somehow cause global warming. Cruelty and stupidity isn’t green…or is it?

  • Frank Hanlan

    I wonder if the methane produced by a biogas digester could be used to provide heat for greenhouses in northern climates to make them more competitive?

  • If you’d like to learn more about manure digesters, or where these projects are currently located around the country, visit the EPA AgSTAR Program at http://www.epa.gov/agstar. AgSTAR is a voluntary program to advance the capture and use of methane from livestock manure.

    • Tina Casey

      Hi Christopher thank you for your comment. I mentioned AgSTAR in a previous post and I’ll update this one with a link to the program.

  • Sven

    What about using the manure as fertilizer?

    • Tina Casey

      yep that can be done with leftovers from the biogas process and here’s a link for more info: http://www.epa.gov/agstar

  • DS

    I am curious to know how the shift to biogas will effect the health of topsoil.

    Its my understanding that manure is usually spread to help fertilize crops and keep the ‘cycle of life’ going – preventing ‘bleaching’ of soil nutrients over crop cycles and enriching topsoil.

    Removing this ‘additive’ to help prevent soil erosion could be harmful in the long run as crops are still pulled from the same grounds but with fewer and fewer nutrients replaced.

    Ronald Wright’s CBC Massey Lecture ‘A Short History of Progress’ touches on this subject.

    Food for thought…



    • Tina Casey

      good question, partially answered by the use of solids left over from the biogas process as an inert (non-smelly) fertilizer

  • Tyler

    Isn’t methane still a greenhouse gas according to the EPA? http://www.epa.gov/methane/

    • Tina Casey

      yep and one source of methane is from the decomposition of untreated manure. The point of the biogas system is to capture methane that would otherwise be released through natural processes. The tightly controlled environment of the digesters speeds things up and allows for the efficient capture of methane, which can then be used as fuel.

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