Vermont dairy farm tunrns
manure into renewable energy

By Lisa Halvorsen

Editor’s note: The article was contributed by
the University of Vermont Cooperative
Extension Service.

ike many top dairy producers in Vermont, Brian and Bill Rowell attribute their success in large part to their ability to think outside the box to maximize available resources to maximize profits. Cow comfort ranks high on their agenda, as does communicating effectively with their 15 fulltime employees and using sustainable practices to protect the environment and preserve the land for future generations.

The owners of Green Mountain Dairy LLC, a 1,050-cow operation in Sheldon, Vt., also embrace changing technologies to improve their herd average and increase revenue from their cows beyond what they get for their milk. Installation of an anaerobic methane digester system two years ago enables them to convert manure produced on the farm into renewable energy. The Rowells milk 900 cows on a twice daily milking schedule in a double-15 milking parlor, shipping their milk to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.

For their innovative practices, this dairy farm has been named the 2008 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association, in cooperation with the New England Green Pastures Program, select one outstanding Vermont dairy operation for this prestigious award every year. Each nominee is evaluated on several criteria including pasture, crop and herd management programs; production records; conservation practices; contributions to the dairy industry and local community; and overall excellence in dairying.

Glenn Rogers, a UVM Extension farm business management specialist based in St. Albans, notes that “this is a very clean, very well-kept operation. They do an outstanding job with their cows. They pay attention to detail, as indicated by their well-managed herd and quality crops going into the bunkers.

“They also provide lots of outreach to the community with open houses for the public and other farmers to tour the farm and the methane digester system. An estimated 7,500 people from more than 20 countries have toured the farm since 2006. That all played into the judges’ decision to present the award to this farm this year.”

Numbers needed to make
system work

Green Mountain Dairy is one of the largest farms in Franklin County, milking 900 cows and growing corn and grass for haylage on 1,200 tillable acres on farms purchased in Sheldon, Swanton and Highgate, as well as some leased land.

While the farm is regulated by the Large Farm Operations Program of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Brian Rowell is quick to point out that this is a family farm. The numbers are what make it work economically, he explains. “When we were in the planning stages 10 years ago for this farm, we ran the numbers and found we needed 800 cows. Having 400 cows would have worked for us back then, but to succeed, you need to make it work for today and for tomorrow.”

“Every farm, be it big or small, in order to be sustainable and continue to be viable in future years, needs sound financial management,” says Tony Kitsos, a farm management educator with UVM Extension’s Farm Viability Enhancement Program. The Rowells talk daily and consult with their financial advisors on a monthly basis to fine tune their ongoing financial management strategy.

The higher producing animals are milked three times a day. Their rolling herd average is 22,000 pounds of milk per cow with 3.8 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein. To ensure that the herd gets proper nutrition, the Rowells consult with two nutritionists every week. These recommendations enable them to feed their cows a total mixed ration of corn silage, haylage, and grains, balanced according to the energy, protein, and fiber needs for each group of cows according to their stage of lactation.

Managing manure for energy
As with any sizeable dairy operation, efficient management of manure is important. While many farmers invest in larger storage lagoons to handle the volume, the Rowells decided that an anaerobic methane digester system to turn manure into energy was a viable economic option for them. They were the third farm in Vermont to sign up with Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) for its Cow Power Program.

The installation of the digester cost $2.37 million, which was offset partly through $755,000 in grants from USDA Rural Development, the Vermont Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund, CVPS and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

The projected payback period “pencils out at 4.3 years, but in reality is closer to six years,” says Bill Rowell. “Right now, it’s not feasible for farms with a small herd size to use this technology,” Rogers points out. “For a 100-cow operation, even a 300- or 400- cow operation, this isn’t an economically sound option. But for farms with high cow numbers, like this one, capturing waste production and recycling that waste into a usable commodity makes smart economic sense.”

The Rowells’ herd produces 10 million gallons of manure yearly, which is converted into enough methane to produce 1.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. The energy is purchased by CVPS and sold to its customers interested in “green energy.” The additional four cents per kilowatthour paid by the consumer goes to the participating farmers and effectively covers the carbon offset, Brian Rowell explains.

In addition to the projected revenue, the process has resulted in other benefits. “It's lowered our somatic cell count,” Bill Rowell says, “and we are able to provide all our bedding needs for the milking cows.” He estimates the farm is saving $100,000 annually by using the dry bio-solids from the treated manure instead of sawdust for bedding in their state-of-the-art freestall barns. They also supply dry bedding for two local farms and several nurseries and greenhouses.

Stewards of the land
The dairy farmers have developed a comprehensive nutrient management plan in accordance with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Nutrient Management Conservation Standards, according to Kitsos. They follow Accepted Agricultural Practices, established by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which were designed to help farmers conserve and protect natural resources through regulated spreading of manure, crop rotation and installation of buffers along drainage ditches to control sediment, nutrients and pollutants in runoff.

“We are all just stewards of the land, only here on earth for the time we are granted,” Bill Rowell believes. “It is our responsibility to care for the land and resources until the next generation takes over.” Both of Brian’s children, Matthew, 13, and Megan, 11, help out on the farm.

Kitsos notes, “This dairy also is working towards providing a scientific database for the state of Vermont and UVM for nutrient management in conjunction with its anaerobic digester and proposed settling pond, an enhancement to the digester process.”

Off the farm, Brian has been a town selectman in Highgate for 15 years. Bill was appointed by Governor Jim Douglas to the CVPS Rural Development Executive Committee, which is charged with implementing clean energy projects in the state, and was a member of the Dairy Task Force that worked with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on the Farm Bill. He recently was asked to serve on the search committee for the new dean of the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and was instrumental in establishing the Farmers Wetlands Assistance Committee, which acts as a liaison between Vermont’s dairy producers and USDA/NRCS.

“Green Mountain Dairy will continue to succeed into the future because they have a sound vision of their business; are committed to solid dairy, economic, and environmental practices; and work with their families and employees to further the success of the farm,” Rogers concludes. “In addition, they are willing to try new ideas that make sense, fit the farm, improve the environment and help the community.”

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