Kirkman Farms is constructing a dairy digester, converting methane to fuel and pledging to do its part for the environment.

New technologies providing for the capture of methane gas from dairy cows to be utilized as fuel are allowing a western Iowa farm to meet its expansion goals while also becoming a carbon-neutral operation doing its part for the environment.

Kirkman Farms LLP, a family farm in northeast Shelby County, is partnering with California’s Brightmark RNG Origination LLC to construct an anaerobic digester on the 6,071-cow dairy farm that will acquire the methane and then clean and pipe the captured gas to a nearby Northern Natural Gas pipeline.

“We finance, design, develop, construct and operate the projects,” said Forrest Carroll, Brightmark director of development, “with the dairy’s help, coordination and cooperation.”

Brightmark has partnered in roughly 30 similar projects across 13 states with some just beginning methane gas capture while others are in the construction or development phases. The Kirkman Farms project has been a couple years in the making, and although digester technology is still in its infancy, it is gaining traction as both financially viable and environmentally friendly.  “We’ll be a carbon neutral dairy,” said Matt Van Baale, owner/partner of Kirkman Farms with partner Lance Mouw of California, “and that’s pretty cool. It’s just a win/win on so many fronts.

“We thought this was a really unique opportunity to expand our cow herd, which makes our place more efficient; take something that is currently not being used for energy and create energy; and become a carbon neutral facility, which ultimately helps the environment.”

U.S. livestock production accounts for less than 4% of overall greenhouse gas emissions, and proactive farmers like Kirkman Farms are adding new and innovative measures to decrease agriculture’s effects on climate even more.

“This is relatively new technology,” Van Baale explained.  “You’re literally taking manure and putting it through a process that creates a couple hundred thousand BTUs of natural gas a year. Otherwise, you just put it up into the atmosphere.”

The digester model is one that has seen success in other regions, with California leading the way totaling approximately 185 methane-reducing facilities.  There are roughly 300 such facilities nationwide and a few dotted across Iowa, so Kirkman Farms is on the bleeding edge of this new technology that looks to be both economical and beneficial for the environment.

“California’s been doing this for a number of years successfully,” Van Baale said.

How it works
The Kirkman Renewable Gas Project takes the manure from the farm and captures the methane. The biogas generated after anaerobic digestion is converted into renewable natural gas that can be used for transportation fuel, industrial heating or other applications.

Funding for the project comes from a joint venture with Brightmark and Chevron U.S.A. Inc., which are providing the capital and construction of the build currently under way.

“All we’re doing is taking a slurry that we used to leave as-is and recycle it to remove the droppings from the barn and run it through a facility to separate solids and liquids,” Van Baale explained.  

The solids head to the digester for 25 to 35 days to capture the methane and then are returned to later be land applied as fertilizer, much like is currently done.

The liquids are transported to the outdoor lagoon as much cleaner water.

“Our water should be cleaner, our sand should be cleaner, where the cows lay down should be cleaner and the digester should have really concentrated solid manure for collecting gas efficiently that will be returned to us into a separation basin,” Van Baale said.

“(Brightmark) gets 100% of our manure. Essentially, they rent it for (25-35) days and then give it back.”

Brightmark has secured easements from neighbors to install a 3-inch pipe to the Northern Natural Gas site 3 miles away, where the methane will be cleaned, scrubbed, compressed and infused into the existing pipeline.

“The fact that we’re this close to that pipeline makes this site more attractive,” Van Baale said.  “The hopes are to be making gas by the end of the year, and I think we’re on track to do that.”

Family farm
Van Baale grew up in Valley View, Texas, where he milked cows for $4 an hour on Kupper Bros.’ 140-head dairy farm. After college, he came to western Iowa’s Shelby County, where he helped build, and now owns and operates, his own dairy. He’s seen the farm grow to include not only a milking barn but also a calf ranch and smaller dry cow facility.

The farm sits on 140 acres and includes buildings, grass, hay barns, a silage pad and 200 acres where the calf ranch is located that has 185 tillable acres, three small buildings and a few hutches.

Kirkman Farms has 60 em­ployees and will look to ex­pand from 6,071 cows to up­wards of 8,500 when the digester is up and running.

“We’re permitted for 8,500, but I think we’ll be at more like 8,100 to 8,200,” Van Baale said.  

They’ll also add on to the dry cow barn to include a special needs hospital.

They grow their own heifers at the calf ranch, send them to a feedlot near Salix at 7 months old and return them to Kirkman at 22 months, where they will give birth.

“We don’t buy any cows … We’re a self-contained, closed herd,” Van Baale said.

All of the milk produced at the farm, about 50,000 gallons per day, is sold to Anderson Erickson in Des Moines.  

The manure digester allows for another in­come stream while helping the environment, Van Baale said.

He credits the employees and his partner for helping him and his family make the operation successful.  “We have really good employees ... (and) you couldn’t ask for a better business partner,” Van Baale said. Mouw has other dairy partnerships in Iowa and Nebraska as well as in California.

“We’re a family farm,” he said.  “We’re pretty simple. I get the mail, my wife pays the bills, we do payroll ... and have mobile HR for anything we may need help with. We have four kids …, and hopefully they come back here too.”

For Brightmark and Chevron, they will see the benefits of carbon credits — incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — through California’s low carbon fuel standard program and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard, as well as the value of the finished product provided to Northern Natural Gas.

“The carbon benefits for these types of projects are pretty high,” said Chad Frahm, Brightmark vice president of regulatory affairs. “There’s a lot of momentum around” developing low carbon fuel standard programs throughout the United States.

Added Carroll: “The greenhouse gas capture benefits are undeniable. All that anaerobically produced methane that’s floating off lagoons is now captured, and we’re putting it into a pipeline and using it for different end fuel sources.”

They aren't disrupting the value of the remaining manure to be utilized as fertilizer, and by producing the gas, they aren't burning fossil fuels. “Or Russian fuel, perhaps,” Carroll said.

Kirkman Farms will see some financial gain from the end product’s value, but Van Baale said what’s even better is knowing his family farm is helping the environment. After all, that’s what being a dedicated, conscientious local farmer is all about.
“I really look forward to being a carbon neutral dairy,” Van Baale said. “I think it’s good for the environment, it’s good for our efficiencies and I think it’s going to be great for the consumer long-term.”