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Dave Merritt, Dane county director of program development (left) learns about historic Borden milk bottles from Arthur Meinholz, one of the dairy farmer who will use the new manure digester.

Dave Merritt, Dane county director of program development (left) learns about historic Borden milk bottles from Arthur Meinholz, one of the dairy farmer who will use the new manure digester. Photo By John Oncken

Catching up on manure digesters

May 23, 2013 | 0 comments

What do you hear about those community manure digesters that were much talked about for Dane county?

That's question came up from a group of dairy farmers who were discussing "big dairy issues" while eating beef and pork sandwiches at the WPS Farm Show back in March. A good question and one other farmers have asked me in recent months and one I'll admit I'd not kept up with.

They knew that the first of the digesters had been working for a couple of years but what about the second one? Certainly I knew it was still in the hopper but had no details. Now I do.

Some history

Dane county has four major lakes: Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa all surrounded by people and farmland. For many decades, people who use the lakes have complained about weeds, algae and summer odors and until the 1960s or so Monona received the liquids from the Madison sewage system.

(That's when the liquid was diverted to the Badfish Creek near Oregon and ruined my dad's pasture land when milk inspectors said the cows could no longer drink the creek water.)

A Dane County study committee came up with suggestions to make the lakes cleaner, one of which was to eliminate the phosphorus run-off off of farm fields.

The committee arrived at three objectives: Water Quality Protection, Economic Feasibility and Agricultural Viability and Sustainability of the surface water and groundwater within the Six Mile and Pheasant Branch Creeks and Yahara River -Lake Mendota and -Lake Monona watersheds in the lower Rock River Drainage Basin.

One way to achieve this was through manure digesters in two locations: The first digester involved three adjoining dairy farms: Ripps Dairy Valley, White Gold Dairy and Endres Dairy all located just north of Waunakee. Their closeness meant manure can be pumped directly to the digester that is owned by Clear Horizons, a Milwaukee company that also built and owns the Crave Brothers digester at Waterloo.

The Waunakee digester began operation in April 2011 and seems to be operating as planned.

Cow Power Two

From the beginning a second site just west of Middleton was in the planning and after several years of meetings, negotiations and planning, is about ready to begin construction.

A recent news release provides an overview:

"Construction of Dane County's second 'Cow Power' facility is set to begin in the coming weeks as final agreements needed for the project were approved this evening," Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced.

The agreements will secure $3.3 million in previously-awarded grant funding from the state to help finance construction of the digester just outside of Middleton. The agreements also formalize private ownership and operations of the facility with Gundersen Health System, LaCrosse.

The digester will take manure from three farms - the Ziegler Dairy Farm, Blue Star Dairy (owned by the Meinholz Family), and the Hensen Brothers Farm - and convert it into enough electricity to power around 2,500 homes.

"By working together - the public sector, the private sector, business, and agriculture, - we are helping clean up our lakes, create homegrown 'green' energy, and make it easier for our family farms to keeping growing their herds, crops and our local economy," Parisi said.

Parisi included $300,000 in this year's county budget to fund a new water treatment system for this digester that will remove 100 percent of the pollutant phosphorus that's found in manure.

Joe Parisi, Dave Merritt, county program development director and I recently met and they explained the current status of the new "Cow Power" digester.

• The first ground will be turned in a couple of weeks by US Biogas, a development company specializing in nutrient management systems in which Dan Nemke and Karl Crave are the manure digester experts (both worked at Clear Horizons, the company that built Crave Brothers digester, and the first community digester at Waunakee).

• The new digester will be owned by Gundersen Health System, LaCrosse.

• Manure will be trucked from the three farms which are several miles apart and range in size from 325-700 cows.

• Solids will be received and composted by Purple Cow Organics LLC, a Middleton company producing organic compost, compost tea, home grower and professional soil blends in southern Wisconsin.

The farms

Arthur Meinholz, Greg Ziegler and Will Hensen, the dairy farmers who will provide the manure, are enthusiastic about the digester as a logical manure handling system and as a big plus for the watershed. These dairy farms are among the state's best dairy operations, are family owned and have been in business for a long time.

Blue Star Dairy milks 480 cows and is one of the three dairy facilities owned and operated (as a partnership) by the Meinholz family. It was the "home farm" of Will and Dorothy Meinholz , the parents of Walter, Louie and Arthur. Arthur and Lori Meinholz operate this dairy that has a growing registered Holstein presence.

"We've been involved in discussions about this digester since 2007," Art says. "It seems like a good project for the community."

Greg Ziegler milks 700 cows (and will soon expand) in a 48-cow carrousel parlor and owns the land where the digester will be located. His parents Leo and Carol are still active on the farm as are Greg's five sons.

"The city (Middleton) is moving in on us," Greg says. "I see the digester as a help to preserve the farm for my five sons. Our family has owned this land since 1962."

The Hensen Brothers Farm dates to 1867 and is owned by Will and Jim Hensen who milk 325 cows. "The idea of a manure digester has long intrigued me," Will says. "We're advocates of not spreading manure during the winter. This will be good for us."

Near 100 percent phosphorus removal by mechanical means is a goal of Cow Power Two and the door is open for other dairies (the big Wagner dairy is just a stone throw from the digester) to add their manure to the digester. The addition of the truck hauling liquid manure from the three farms will create a different traffic climate.

Gundersen Health System is owner of the new digester as a part of their goal to "power our buildings with clean renewable resources by 2014 which includes ... 45 million kW hours of electricity."


Will the ownership if this new community digester by Gundersen Health System prompt others to own such digesters? Will community digesters be an answer to manure handling in other locations?

Dane County Executive Parisi and a host of others (including some farmers) think so. Six Dane County dairies are leading the way, the other 300 dairy farms will watch - so will we.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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