The reasons and opportunities to add anaerobic digester technology to dairy farms are as varied as the farms themselves. However, many projects are rooted in the desire to add a new revenue source for the dairy while reducing the operation’s environmental footprint and participating in developing carbon markets.
For example, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard is one of the regional carbon credit markets available that create revenue opportunities through the capture and sales of carbon credits gained by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Similar programs in the Northeast and other states are coming online soon.
Adopting anaerobic digester technology for a dairy farm requires teamwork, time and patience. Digester projects are usually a long time in the making, often stretching 18 to 24 months or more, so be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.
Your farm will need trusted partners to help navigate this sometimes-challenging landscape. You don’t want to get halfway into a project only to learn you didn’t have the right people at the table during its development.
Talk with peers, visit farms with existing systems and ask for referrals to build your network. Also, discuss project timeline expectations and learn from others when it’s critical to bring in specific advisors.
For example, ask questions like: When should you loop in your local government officials? Before or after you have a site plan?
You should also be sure to get tips on how to best discuss plans with your lender and who should help with negotiations with an energy company.
Every situation is different, but your current advisors all play important roles in how your dairy proceeds. Additional expertise will also be needed, depending on project scope and stage, as well as the professionals who already provide counsel for your farm.
The make-up of your team will likely ebb and flow as planning and construction progress, but a strong digester team often includes:
- Agronomists. Reach out to agronomists to more effectively plan for and utilize manure resources. Use their expertise for proper nutrient application, management and soil fertility. This insight is important since manure composition, nutrient levels and application timing or rates may change due to factors including bedding changes and handling techniques. Their role is important as you work through manure application logistics.
- Farm attorney. Consult with your farm’s attorney early in a digester development process to ensure your legal rights are protected and the responsibilities of involved parties are spelled out. Signing a digester agreement without first consulting with your legal team is likely an ill-advised decision. Keep your attorney abreast of progress and legal needs throughout a digester project.
- Irrigation specialists. Consider visiting with an irrigation specialist if you will be applying manure effluent via an irrigation system. They can help determine which system will best serve your situation and goals, along with factors to avoid. Like agronomists, these specialists may not be part of initial decisions but consider bringing this advice onboard when you work through application logistics.
- Lenders. Financial professionals should already have a seat on your team. Be sure to share plans with them early in the development process. Keep lenders up to speed from the beginning to the end of a project.
- Local and state government officials. Know local, county and state siting regulations. Begin with township zoning boards to determine which governing bodies have jurisdiction over a project before you begin. These officials should be able to share which additional government entities will need to be involved from a regulatory perspective, as well as the timing of their involvement.
- Manure management system specialists. Join with these experts to help understand and optimize manure volume, storage and transport throughout your farm’s facilities. Experienced guidance from these consultants is needed from a project’s inception to ensure a plan features the proper equipment to deliver manure to the digester and accomplishes your dairy’s needs today and tomorrow.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel. NRCS can be a source of digester funding as well as provide federal regulatory guidance and practice standards for dairy farms. It’s important to involve NRCS personnel early in digester project discussions. They can also help navigate which other agencies may need to be part of the project and when to include them.
- State departments of ag and natural resources personnel. Local officials, experienced digester and manure management personnel and NRCS experts should be able to help determine if and when state department of agriculture and/or natural resources officials must be part of your project team. Requirements likely vary by state, so be sure to ask about state involvement early in the process.
If you don’t know who some of these key people are in your area, use the links listed below to help track down the individuals and departments you must work with in your community and beyond. Also, ask your neighbors and peers for referrals if you do not already have a relationship with key experts.
Before you get too far in the process, develop a communication plan within your farm team so third parties know who they must speak with to get information. Your farm and digester teams need to know who is responsible for relaying information to decision-makers. Doing so helps cut down on communication gaps and misunderstandings between teams and among partners.
The foundation for success is to thoughtfully identify, select and engage the right partners. Closely collaborate with them to design the best system to fit your needs today and into the future.
Here are a few government, ag industry and biogas resources to help you in your journey and to help you identify specific team members:
- AgStar biogas project development handbook
- AgStar guidelines and permitting for livestock anaerobic digesters
- Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center
- Certified crop advisor directory
- Farmer’s Guide to Dairy-Derived Biogas Production, Treatment and Utilization
- Irrigation Association
- Key components of successful manure supply agreements
- NRCS conservation practice standards for anaerobic digesters
- NRCS state offices
- State and local governments
- State departments of agriculture
- USDA rural development state offices
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency anaerobic digestion for dairy farms
- Wisconsin biogas survey report