Few farms in North America are as recognized as Prairie’s Edge Dairy Farm LLC, Fair Oaks, Ind. Located just off the interstate south of Chicago, sits on over 15,000 acres and shepherds over 18,000 cows, enough cows to produce a glass of milk every day for everyone in Chicago. The farm is also host to The Dairy Adventure, one of the largest agricultural theme parks in America, where the doors of its operations are opened to the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of visitors both fans and critics. It is a real glimpse into the modern dairy farm of the future.
Sustainability in the Spotlight
Such up-close public attention has reinforced the dairy’s management team to pay close heed to the big picture issues that can affect the farm, including what being truly sustainable entails.
“We work hard developing our operations with a mind to what will affect us not just today, but in three, five, and 10 years,” says Dr. Michael McCloskey, DVM, CEO and co-founder of Prairie’s Edge. “It’s a strategy that has helped us understand and calculate the importance of farming sustainably. Our goal is for Prairie’s Edge to reach a zero-carbon footprint.”
And, he believes they can get there.
Dairy farms continue to spend a lot of effort and resources on their milk production, making sure it is safe and a high quality. But the side of the dairy farm that is getting a lot attention these days is manure.
“We’re now implementing technologies enabling us to turn farm manure waste from a potential liability into an asset,” he says.
Over the past decade, Prairie’s Edge installed bio-digesters that produce 2,000,000 feet3 of bio-gas annually from its cow manure. That’s enough gas to fuel its more than 40 tractor-trailers and electrically power its milk production operations and the Visitor’s Center of the Fair Oaks Theme Park and still sell excess electricity back to the county power utility.
As successful as its energy-producing technologies have been, they haven’t made the manure disappear, which requires additional technology. For Prairie’s Edge the next big step was nutrient recovery.
Nutrient recovery captures manure’s nutrient components—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—and converts manure into by-products that are safer for the environment, easier for the farm to manage, and creates additional values and revenues.
It is a relatively new process and careful planning was needed to find the right technology to align with Prairie’s Edges’ existing operational processes.
Carl Ramsey, environmental manager for Prairie’s Edge, was tasked with finding and implementing the nutrient recovery technology. “There were several systems that showed promise, but with so many variables that differ from farm to farm and region to region, evaluating solutions can be complicated.
“Initially, nutrient recovery technology seemed expensive,” continues Ramsey, “but once we analyzed all the manure-related costs that nutrient recovery could effectively reduce or eliminate, we realized the return on investment would come pretty quickly.
“Farmers need to recognize the future of manure is going to include tougher regulation, and they need to get a handle on the costs those regulations will impose,” Ramsey continues. “Once they do, they’ll be able to figure out how to make nutrient recovery work for them. For smaller farms that might mean cooperating to centralize one nutrient recovery system amongst themselves.”
Prairie’s Edge chose a technology from Trident Processes, LLC, the U.S. subsidiary of KPD Consulting Ltd. of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, one among only a handful of companies developing nutrient recovery technologies specifically for the Ag sector.
“The Trident system currently produces three by-products,” explains Kerry Doyle, Founder, and CEO of Trident. “Fiber, nutrient cake (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), and water. Just separating those three components offers significant optimization of a farm’s manure operations, reducing or eliminating costly processes manure requires in its raw form.”
Manure is known to be a difficult medium to work with. The chemical composition is hard on machinery. Asked if there have been any surprises, Ramsey, who is in charge of keeping all of the farm’s manure technologies running, says that it has worked as promised. “The nutrient recovery system has functioned for 18-months now with nothing more than a couple of minor hiccups,” he says. “That’s not something I can often say. Currently, the Trident system is capturing 81 percent of the phosphorus and 70 percent of the solid organic nitrogen, right on target with the original specifications.
“Our total costs for manure operations has historically been between 50 cents to 75 cents per 100 pounds of milk sold, about average for the industry,” continues Ramsey. “We expect nutrient recovery will bring our overall manure handling costs down by one-third and we are currently on course to achieve that.”
Next Generation Technology
Nutrient recovery is already advancing to the next generation of technology. Prairie’s Edge has teamed up with Trident to pilot new initiatives to make nutrient recovery solutions even more valuable.
Some of the advanced solutions being developed are:
- Enhancing bio-digester manure feedstock material to increase gas production;
- Developing strategic partnerships with fertilizer producers to develop new commercial fertilizer products;
- Using the fiber to create cellulosic-based polymers that can be recycled into the nutrient recovery solution; and
- Developing a new polymer that will enable organically certified nutrient cake.
These new developments are shifting the role of farm manure. What has been a nuisance pollution is being converted to useable commodities that have intrinsic value and is helping add value to other processes both on and off the farm.
“It’s definitely become an important tool for our farm’s sustainability toolbox,” says Dr. McCloskey.
And, if technology decisions by Prairie’s Edge have been any sort of barometer, this suggests nutrient recovery is set to play an important role.
Shatto is senior partner of Point Nexus Consulting Inc., Abbotsford, BC Canada, a company that “helps small business make better decisions.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.