Raising green beef
How cattle and dairy farmers are becoming environmentally-friendly
By LUIS FIELDMAN, Staff Writer, The Recorder, October 9, 2019
Methane, a greenhouse gas, gets turned into electricity at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley. Enough electricity is generated from cow manure and food waste to power more than 1,000 homes.
The gas traps heat in the atmosphere and cows produce methane through belches, farts and their manure – enough to account for nine percent of all methane emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2013, Barstow’s began using an anaerobic digester, which processes manure and food waste into electricity and creates a nutrient-rich fertilizer for the farm.
The digester generates 800 kilowatts per hour by processing all of the farm’s nearly 6,000 gallons of manure, plus 7,000 gallons of food waste from nearby businesses.
“We are taking the energy potential out of cow manure and food waste and turning it into enough electricity to power 1,600 homes,” Denise Barstow said.
Two engines are running continuously to generate electricity that goes into the power grid. Both engines have heat recovery units hooked up which goes back to heating the digester itself, for hot water used to clean barns, and to heat eight homes on the farm’s property.
Food waste from local companies such as Coca Cola and Whole Foods and manure from the farm’s 550 cows go into the digester’s tanks, one of which is 17 feet underground and insulated by the ground.
“It’s a lot like a stomach,” Barstow said. “It’s really hot in there. Everything is moving around, there are little microbes in there and all the gas is rising to the top — methane, carbon and sulfur.”
Barstow said that the farm captures 80 percent of the methane produced by cows, and converts it into carbon — a less harmful pollutant — along with generating electricity, making natural fertilizer, and heating. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its ability to absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere.
“We wanted to do something that the community would really buy into and support and something that reflected our beliefs as farmers,” Barstow said. “That we need to do our best to minimize our waste and reuse all that we can and do the best possible thing for the land and world.”
Barstow’s Farm partnered with five other dairy farms in the state to attract investors for the digester. A combination of grants and loans from the state helped support the $6.3 million project. Vanguard Renewables, a Wellesley-based company, operates the digester.
Minimizing environmental impact
The U.S. has the largest fed-cattle industry in the world and is the world’s largest producer of beef, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Massachusetts ranks among the smallest inventory of cattle in the U.S.
In 2017, the USDA reported a population of approximately 6,000 cattle in Massachusetts versus largest-scale productions in Texas with 4 million, and Missouri and Oklahoma each with over 2 million.
Farmers at Barstow’s and Cook Farm in Hadley are implementing farming practices to minimize their impact on the local environment.
Use of fertilizers
Land management practices for growing cow feed can have a significant impact on its surrounding area. The type of fertilizer used and the method for preparing the land to grow crops are vital to minimizing a farm’s impact on the environment.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organization, U.S. farmers applied roughly 4.3 million tons of nitrogen-based fertilizer on their crops in 1964. By 2007, Americans used 5.7 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer on corn alone.
Since the 1950s, artificial commercial fertilizer has become a cheaper and easier method of growing cow feed, and the practice of rotating crops in order to keep soil naturally fertile has become less common, according to an agricultural professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Masoud Hashemi, who teaches pasture management at UMass, said, “For many years, farmers were dependent on legumes for biologically fixing nitrogen” in the soil. Then, “the fossil fuel (industry) made artificial fertilizer cheap and easy to handle and farmers stopped using legumes since they could buy big bags of urea for $20.” Urea is a cheap, nitrogen-based artificial fertilizer.
Farmers would use peas, beans, alfalfa, and clover in order to bring nitrogen from the atmosphere into the ground and enrich the soil after harvesting hay and corn used for cow feed, Hashemi said. The harm in using artificial fertilizers is the runoff created from rain and water. Harmful chemicals make their way into underground sources of water that can cause algae blooms in brooks, ponds, and lakes, according to Hashemi.
“Algae blooms deplete oxygen from a body of water and any organism in the water, including fish, snakes, and frogs that will die because of a deficiency of oxygen,” Hashemi said. “The water is also toxic and small animals that drink from it will die. Baby sheep and cows are very sensitive to that.”
Gordon Cook, a co-owner of Cook Farm, said runoff control methods can help prevent erosion from rainwater from contaminating larger bodies of water.
“We incorporate the use of grassways to purify the water before they get into a stream,” he said. The grassways disperse the erosion into the ground before reaching a body of water. Cook also said the farm uses stone waterways to move the water into a swale rather than a ditch.
“Rather than let (erosion) run off and take things and put it downriver, we try to disperse it so that the water doesn’t go” into waterways such as the Connecticut River, Cook said.
Disturbing the soil
How farmers prepare their land for a growing season can have adverse effects on soil quality and can produce harmful runoff. Tilling practices that break up and invert the soil, such as plowing and disking, have been considered conventional since the 1980s, Hashemi said, but research has shown that minimally disturbing the land produces a healthier soil.
Over the past five years, Barstow’s Farm has transitioned to no-till planting using specialized equipment that uses knife-like tools to cut small slits in the soil to then drop and cover seeds in the ground.
“We do not disturb the soil when we plant our seeds in the springtime,” Barstow said. “By not disturbing the soil you are keeping the biodiversity within the soil more intact, which will sequester more carbon. It also reduces soil erosion.”
Farms harrow the ground to chop unwanted weeds, eliminate clumps in the ground and to incorporate topsoil into the ground, which releases a lot of carbon into the air, Barstow said.
Planting cover crops after the harvesting season of cow feed crops help minimize the runoff of harmful chemicals in the ground from fertilizers, according to Hashemi. “It eases erosion and the impact on the environment.”
Cook Farm has used cover crops for the past 30 years in order to “sequester nitrogen and protect the soil from wind and rain erosion,” Cook said. The farm grows rye, wheat, and turnip kale to feed the farm’s 190 cows, 70 of which they milk for dairy.
The farm grows a little over 90 acres of corn and 175 acres of hay to feed their cattle, Cook said. They also use mixed grass, clover and alfalfa to feed their cows.
For the past seven years, Cook Farms has not plowed its fields, but Cook said tilling is useful in combating aggressive weeds and a complete turning over of the soil can help in those cases.
“I am pretty fond of trying no-till planting systems and the use of cover crops,” Cook said. Cook said he has seen the use of cover crops as more common in the past five to 10 years.
Barstow said that cover cropping in western Massachusetts has become a common practice among farmers, and “learning about farms out West that didn’t cover crop was alarming to me because I thought it was a common practice. I don’t know any farms in the area that don’t.”
Barstow’s will be holding free walking tours on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., to show how “innovation and tech have changed this farm for the better. ” This story first appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets working together to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Luis Fieldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org