Make Money, Protect the Climate, with Manure

The U-S Department of Agriculture recently promised international leaders it would reduce greenhouse gases emitted from large dairy herds. To keep that promise, many dairy farms will have to cover their manure lagoons. Tom Borgerding reports from Circleville, Ohio, near Columbus, where one farmer hopes to convert greenhouse gases to money in his pocket.

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OPEN: The U-S Department of Agriculture recently promised international leaders it would reduce greenhouse gases emitted from large dairy herds. To keep that promise, many dairy farms will have to cover their manure lagoons. Tom Borgerding reports from Circleville, Ohio where one farmer hopes to convert greenhouse gases to money in his pocket.

Everyday, dairy farmer Andy Miedema walks to the north edge of his property in rural south-central Ohio to check gauges on a gas flare. The flare is burning off gas from a manure lagoon. A new cover installed on Miedema's lagoon by the Environmental Credit Corporation is helping to trap and convert some of the more harmful greenhouse gases. Gauges measure the amount of methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia captured by the synthetic cover. Miedema describes the set-up.

"This lagoon is 18 foot deep. And for storage reasons the complete cover is sagging in 18 foot deep. So its floating on the liquid. Beside that, you have sleeves of concrete crossing over the tarp. It looks very simple but it took about seven, eight guys three weeks long to make this here."

The acre-size lagoon-cover cost about 200-thousand dollars to install. But, farmer Miedema paid nothing. The construction cost was picked up by the Environmental Credit Corporation. Spokesman Scott Subeler says his company can measure the flared gas emissions and then convert them to what he calls carbon dioxide equivalent credits on the Chicago Climate exchange. Subeler says Methane gas is 21 to 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide with regard to its global warming potential. So, even though the flare at Miedema's farm emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere it still reduces greenhouse gases.

"Remember this isn't fossil fuel, CO2 that they'd be emitting by burning the methane is actually CO2 that was pulled out of the air just last year into the silage or corn crop or what ever it was that they were feeding the cow."

Subeler estimates each cow produces four metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year. And Miedema Farms keeps a minimum herd of one-thousand Holstein cows.

"So that'd be for a thousand cows that'd be four thousand tons per year."

And Subeler says each ton of carbon dioxide equivalent can be sold on the climate exchange for as much as eight dollars.

"The price has ranged from eight dollars per ton of CO2 to 20 cents."

After checking operation of the gas flare, Andy Miedema enters the milking parlor as the cows arrive from their feeding pens.

Miedema says he's optimistic his lagoon cover experiment will succeed. He says the cover has already solved odor complaints from one of his neighbors. And, by producing carbon credits, his farm is also helping offset some of the carbon emissions from the region's big utility companies which burn Appalachian coal to produce electricity.

"So, the idea of the new carbon credits system is, like the coal mine industry, they can expand their industry but they have to buy the carbon credits. So it reduces global warming. That's the idea, its correct or not correct I'm not in charge of that."

But, Miedema says sales of future carbon credits from dairy farms has a huge potential upside, especially if the price of those carbon credits increases as the U-S and other countries work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Industry figures estimate the U-S has 9 million dairy cows. If the experimental manure lagoon covers capture most of the waste gases then dairy farmers would have another source of income on their farms. And a significant source of greehhouse gases ó cow manure ó would be reduced.

As Miedema leaves the milking parlor he shouts instructions to one of his workers.

Miedema's lagoon cover is one of only a handful of such experiments in the United States. Researchers are testing their effectiveness in different regions. If they're effective, dairy farmers may find themselves tracking the price of carbon as well as milk and cheese.

For the Ohio River Radio Consortium, I'm Tom Borgerding.