Step foot on the Kirkman Farms LLP dairy operation in western Iowa, and you’ll come to know rather quickly it’s someplace special.

In early April I was invited to hang out for an hour with Matt Van Baale, co-owner of the 6,071-cow operation who also has been a friend and neighbor of our family for decades, to learn more about a fascinating anaerobic digester project being built that will convert ordinary methane from cow manure into natural gas.

It’s cutting-edge technology that captures the methane from dairy cows to be utilized as fuel, while also reducing the farm’s carbon footprint – making it carbon neutral -- popular buzzwords for the green crowd working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In my visit with Matt and representatives from company partners Brightmark and Chevron U.S.A., that’s where the conversation turned to manure stew.  

You see, that’s what happens in an anaerobic digester – it stirs up the water/manure slurry to release the methane so it can be captured, cleaned and piped to a nearby Northern Natural Gas pipeline for available use in the industry.

Livestock make up less than 4 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions, and proactive farmers like Kirkman Farms are adding new and innovative measures to decrease agriculture’s effects on climate.

Learning about the technology, literally, took time for me to digest.

When cows poop, the manure from the barns is flushed away with water, and at Kirkman Farms, the slurry will travel to a newly-constructed digester where it will be stored for 25-35 days.  

Once the methane is captured, the solids will be utilized as fertilizer -- solid gold.

Then, the produced biogas generated through anaerobic digestion is converted into renewable natural gas to be used for everything from transportation fuel to industrial heating.

It’s a unique opportunity for Kirkman Farms as it works to become carbon neutral.  The project also will allow it to add on a special needs hospital to take care of the animals.

All the while producing more than 50,000 gallons of milk per day to Anderson Erickson in Des Moines for consumers.  And…capturing the methane can reduce odor as well.

Quite an accomplishment for this family farm where Matt fetches the mail every day, his wife, Kristen, pays the bills, they do their own payroll and their four kids help in between busy high school and college schedules.

Manure stew is likely to gain in popularity.  While relatively new, the digester model is one that is seeing success in other regions. There are about 300 nationwide and a few dotted across Iowa, so Kirkman Farms is on the bleeding edge of these new efforts.

It’s one way a local dairy farm is answering the question, “How do we capture methane gas from cows…as we work to become carbon neutral in the process?”

Fascinating stuff from a great family and true stewards of the land.

By Bob Bjoin. Bob is Iowa Farm Bureau's news services coordinator.

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