Every day, Washington dairy farmers are exploring and implementing ways to be good stewards of their land, and others around the nation have begun to notice. For the fourth time since the U.S. Dairy Sustainability program began in 2012, a Washington state dairy farm has won a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award. This year, Vander Haak Dairy in Lynden, Washington, won the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Renewable Energy."
Sustainability is key
Ten years ago, when Vander Haak Dairy partnered with Washington State University and Andgar Corporation to build the first anaerobic digester system in the state, the goal was not to win an award. The goal was to further the farm’s commitment to providing healthy products while also contributing to the health of the community and the planet – to pass along a strong, sustainable dairy practice for future generations.
The Vander Haak's anaerobic digester has served as a test bed for technology development and evaluation. Steve Vander Haak, WSU and Andgar have closely analyzed the digester system and its ability to convert cow manure into biogas, a sanitary animal bedding material and a high-quality, natural liquid fertilizer.
As a direct result of this unprecedented collaboration, the Vander Haak digester system pointed the way towards a renewable energy revolution in the dairy industry nationwide. Other dairies recognize the benefits the Vander Haaks have achieved -- including reduced operating costs and additional revenue streams for the farm -- and want the same for their own dairies. Andgar has developed 11 more digester projects since building the Vander Haak's.
What does an anaerobic digester do?
Anaerobic digesters, like the one found on Vander Haak Dairy, take a natural bacterial process and accelerate it in an enclosed facility that looks like a big, concrete box. Organic material like cow manure is broken down, releasing methane gas. The methane fuels a generator, which produces electricity -- 400-600 kilowatts at a time. Manure isn’t the only thing that goes into the digester; the Vander Haaks have also partnered with a number of human food processors who dispose of food waste here, as well -- waste that might otherwise end up in land fills. The electricity produced by the generator is sold to local utility companies and is enough to power 400 local homes for an entire year.
The digestion process yields two other products: manure solids in the form of a clean, odorless fiber; and a nutrient-rich liquid that is applied to crops as a natural fertilizer. The fiber can be composted and sold off the farm or used as a clean, comfortable bedding for the cows. The latest news is that Vander Haak Dairy and WSU researchers are now test-piloting a project to recover nitrogen and phosphorus from residual manure solids. These nutrients also promote the growth of crops and can obviate the need for intensive phosphorus mining.
Outstanding Achievement in Renewable Energy
Washington dairies continue to earn national recognition as they pave the way for dairy sustainability across the U.S. This year’s Sustainability Award winners were selected based on the results of economic, environmental and community impact, or "triple-bottom-line success." The winners were also assessed on the potential for adoption of their sustainability innovations by others -- what is called demonstrated learning, innovation, improvement and scalability. So, the systems and solutions implemented by the winners are innovations that can be utilized across the industry.
Vander Haak Dairy won the Outstanding Achievement in Renewable Energy Award for its continued pursuit of innovation and sustainable dairy practices. Their system creates renewable energy, establishing an additional revenue stream for the farm, and is now helping food processors recycle their waste in an effort to grow even more food. Vander Haak’s efforts show that small changes add up to big benefits.
To see the full Vander Haak Dairy Case Study, visit the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy website.