Methane Recovery from Small Dairy Operations

2006 Annual Report for SW04-007

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $123,834.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Federal Funds: $450,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $127,000.00
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Ron Carlstrom
MSU Extension- Gallatin County

Methane Recovery from Small Dairy Operations


The project is moving ahead rapidly, although it is currently behind the original schedule because of the change in location and project team members. The PI for this project left MSU; and the new PI was chosen in November. The new location is a much better fit for the project, and all parties are excited about getting the project accomplished by next summer.

Plain Vista dairy decided to not continue with the project. Issues regarding disposal of the post-digested liquid material and the dairy’s priorities for a barn resulted in the decision to postpone implementation of the system.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Graff Systems Inc. completed a schematic design for the digester project during this reporting cycle. The schematic design package includes a project overview and synopsis, budget and economic analysis, approach and structure, schedule, drawings and a copy of the FERC QF application for power sale to the utility. This represents significant progress on the project.

The Gallatin County Extension Agent worked with the Plain Vista Dairy owners to determine priorities for the dairy. The dairy determined that their number one priority was to construct a new barn to facilitate growing of their herd size. The anaerobic digester system was ranked as their second highest priority. The Extension Agent assisted the dairy with a budgeting and cash flow system for planning purposes.

In January 2006, it was determined that there was not sufficient land area to apply the liquid portion of the post-digester waste at agronomic acceptable rates for phosphorus and nitrogen. The dairy’s fields are already overloaded with respect to these two nutrients. Significant work was accomplished to address this nutrient application issue.

In March 2006 the project team traveled to Ogden, UT to meet with the contractor and a dairy utilizing an anaerobic digester system similar to the one proposed in this project. The team learned a great deal about the system and coordinated with Utah State University and Andigen regarding nutrient removal and solids separation.

Following the dairy’s decision to not go forward with the project (in light of the issues defined above), the project team actively searched for a new farm on which to locate this anaerobic digester project. The team met with the financial officer for Deer Lodge prison, who was very interested in a demonstration project, and with a dairy located in Ravalli County. The team met with the Ravalli County dairy (Huls Dairy) on June 1, and decided this dairy would be a good fit for the project. The dairy is very similar in size to the Plain Vista Dairy but has significantly more land available to utilize the nutrients available in the post-digested liquid waste. The dairy was recently upgraded to a modern carousel milking parlor and loafing shed that was designed to accommodate anaerobic digestion for waste management.


The project team has decided to pursue assisting the Huls’ dairy in Ravalli County with installing an anaerobic digester system (same technology as Plain Vista’s proposed). The Huls and NRCS representatives traveled to Utah on July 18 and 19 and met with Utah State University, Andigen and NRCS personnel from Utah concerning the plan. The NRCS engineer in Missoula developed a cost estimate for the Huls system. The Northern Rocky Mountain RC&D is moving their Conservation Innovation Grant to the new project. The new dairy has the capacity and drive to implement this project. It is an excellent location and set of conditions to finish this project.

Cogentech completed an application for the project to apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the original project location. A significant part of this information will transfer to the new location. The local power provider (Ravalli Electric Cooperative) is very supportive of the project and has agreed to net meter with the dairy for power produced.

The project team worked diligently over the reporting period to transfer the project from the Plain Vista Dairy to the Huls Dairy. Several meetings with the project team, the Huls Dairy, the digester company (Andigen), Utah State University, and the NRCS were held to put together a revised project at the new location. Funding from all of the project sources is being transferred to the new project location.

The project is currently behind schedule due to the change in location and the change in the project team due to retirements and staff moves. The PI for this SARE project left MSU and a new PI was chosen and took over the project in November. The new location is a much better fit for the project and all parties are excited about getting the project accomplished by next summer.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The following lessons have been learned from this project. These are important considerations for continuing this project and for any farm considering installing an anaerobic digester.

Ensure that the producer is fully capable of, and committed to, management of the project. The Plain Vista Dairy owners, while fully committed to the project, did not have sufficient available time to provide ownership and management of the project. The dairy owner is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the project fits within the goals of the operation. Without their commitment and hands-on involvement in directing the project, the project can stall or fail.

Ensure that the utility is fully aware of the project’s requirements for partnership. Northwestern Energy, while involved initially in the project, did not communicate that net metering was not allowed for biogas-produced energy.

Without the ability to net meter electricity, the dairy would be forced to enter into a Qualified Facility (QF) agreement with the utility. Northwestern Energy currently offers less than 3 cents/kilowatt for QF agreements. The maintenance for an engine/generator set has been found to be approximately 1.5 cents/kilowatt. The cost of purchasing electricity is around 7 cents/kilowatt. Electric generation utilizing biogas does not make financial sense at this scale (50 – 60 kilowatts/hour) unless the utility is willing to net meter.

Ensure that the post-digester nutrients can be utilized on-farm or disposed of without cost to the producer. Post-digester nutrients are readily available for plant uptake. These nutrients should be utilized in an economically advantageous manner. As the costs of fertilizer go up, it is more important for the dairy to find ways to utilize the nutrients produced by their facility for their farming needs. The dairy needs to have sufficient land to apply the liquid portion of the post-digested material or to partner with neighboring farms for this arrangement.

Overall, the project has resulted in significant advancements in making this technology available for smaller dairies. The Huls Dairy is actively pursuing the potential of utilizing a boiler/steam turbine combination for electrical generation. Current power production from digesters has focused on internal combustion engines. Steam-generated electricity could provide a reliable energy source with significantly reduced maintenance expenses. The project team expects to have a complete design by Spring 2007 and construction to begin in late spring or early summer 2007.


Henry Burkwhat
District Conservationist
Hamilton, MT 59828
Office Phone: 4063635010
Rob Johnson
Ravalli County Extension Agent
MSU Extension
Kristine Handley
NRCS Civil Engineer
Joshua Kellar
Northern Rocky Mountain RC&D
Office Phone: 4065825700
Dan Huls
Secretary, Huls Dairy Inc.
Huls Dairy Inc.
1851 Coyote Road
Corvallis, MT 59828
Office Phone: 4069618887
Kara Schile
Ag. Assistant
Gallatin County Extension
201 W. Madison, Ste. 300
Belgrade, MT 59714
Office Phone: 4063883213
Tim Huls
President, Huls Dairy Inc.
Huls Dairy Inc.
1851 Coyote Road
Corvallis, MT 59828
Office Phone: 4069618887