Carl Frook’s biogas digester has had far-reaching effects on his business, while reducing his environmental footprint.
Frook feeds cattle at his feedlot near Elmwood, Ont., for McCall Livestock, but the real interest for farmers visiting on a recent beef tour was his biogas digester, one of the only ones operating on a beef farm in Ontario.
“The environmental benefit is huge for not only our cattle and animal husbandry, but when we are putting liquid back onto the field,” he said on the tour of three beef feedlots in south Bruce County hosted by Jones Feed Mill, Elanco and Metzger Vet-Chesley Vet.
The manure from the feedlot goes into the digester, along with other food wastes trucked to the farm. What comes out of the digester is methane, burned in engines placed on his property and two other nearby properties.
There is a liquid portion — pathogen free — that is separated from the solids and spread on the fields. The solid digestate is then reused as bedding for the cattle. After processing in the digester the bedding has less bacteria than straw, says Frook.
Frook has his brother-in-law, an accountant, to thank for the idea to install a biogas digester.
“He told me about the Green Energy Act and the Feed-in Tariff program through the provincial government,” says Frook. “So we went at it. We enquired about it. We took a 40-hour biogas course through OMAFRA, hired a consultant, and we applied and we were awarded some contracts.”
They did the economics and it made sense.
Frook has become a leader in biogas development in Ontario and is a member of Cornerstone Renewables, a co-operative of 12 members, mostly livestock farms, but also a greenhouse and university research facility with biogas digesters. Their employee sources organic material from across the province to supply the digesters. The organic material, mostly waste from food processing, is an important part of the process and produces more electricity than just manure by itself.
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Frook can bring in 10,000 tonnes of food waste each year to power his digester, which he likens to managing a cow’s rumen. You have to keep it well balanced and if it goes out of whack, then it takes quite a bit of work to rebalance the digestion process. They work with a biogas engineer who helps them keep everything working well. Recently, it’s working so well that Frook had to flare off gas every day, enough to run another engine for 11 hours per day.
While you don’t want too much gas, it’s worse to have too little since you don’t get paid for electricity generated.
Not far from Elmwood, west of Walkerton, is Chris Freiburger’s beef farm. He also took advantage of the Green Energy Act, covering the south-facing roof of his barn built in 2010 with solar panels. It produces 250 kw, although the production varies depending on the amount of sun and time of year.
Freiburger says his newest barn, a clear span metal post and truss building holds 1,200 head of cattle. It doesn’t, however, have any handling or loading facilities, which created some questions from farmers on the tour. Behind the barn three levels of railing, of the type usually used to keep cars from going off the road at steep embankments, create a corridor for the cattle to follow to two other barns and the handling facilities Freiburger uses to process cattle and load and unload them.
“It gives me lots of flexibility and I like that,” says Freiburger, who custom feeds some cattle and feeds some that he owns.
A lot of activity also takes place in the farm’s drive shed where a full truck and trailer can fit on an 80-foot scale. All cattle trucks are weighed in and out and they also do some custom weighing.
The guts of the solar power system are also housed in the shed, an impressive bank of inverters and controllers where Freiburger monitors the system.
Freiburger says the solar project has been a good investment and requires little maintenance other than some cleaning, which is done from a catwalk across the top of the building.
Across the county, near Kincardine, the Eby family also finishes cattle in a barn built in 2013. At JSE Farms, Steve Eby owns the cattle-feeding side of the business and his father Stan owns the land. Stan is well known to cattle producers, having shepherded the industry through the BSE crisis as the president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
Steve Eby has high standards for the cattle he buys, usually through Schaus Land and Cattle.
“We challenge Wally (Schaus) to deliver cattle that will perform,” he says.
They need to be of known origin, with high health status and all vaccinated. All are from western farms.
He points to a group of cattle that were gaining four pounds per day with a feed conversion of 6:1.
Eby says there isn’t much he would change in this barn. It’s comfortable for the cattle, especially in the summer.
“It’s beautiful for the cattle and their performance stems from that,” he says.
The barn is also labour efficient. Cattle are currently fed in a bunk from a lane down one side of the barn. Eby says he is interested in the potential for replacing the bunks with a robotic feed pusher popular in dairy barns.
The barn is bedded, with no slats, and cattle can be locked into the back or the front of the barn when cleaning the pens.
A catwalk runs above the pens for easy observation of the whole pen so poor-doing calves that sometimes hide out at the back of a pen can be spotted quickly and treated.
Eby keeps careful track of his production and financial numbers and is one of a group of cattle feeders who get together to share production numbers and best practices. He’s also part of the Elanco benchmarking program that plots farms against their peers in Canada and the U.S.
“You have to be disciplined about it,” he says.
Eby has not installed a biogas digester, or solar panels, but his operation was the first in Ontario to be certified under the newly expanded Verified Beef Production Plus program, and he also took part in the McDonald’s sustainable beef program.
He says the audit process to become certified was pretty simple. The auditors wanted to see how he processed cattle and also looked at his scale and mixer wagon, along with asking lots of questions.
“Don’t let it scare you,” he says. “You just have to write down when you do the things that you already do on the farm.”