© Vinny Gragg
© Vinny Gragg

Fair Oaks: The farm where nothing goes to waste

posted by Muireann Bolger
19 February 2016

US dairy operation Fair Oaks Farms is pioneering a technique that converts animal excrement into energy, so virtually nothing is thrown away

No waste goes to waste at the 11 farms of Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana. The 14,000-hectare dairy business has gained itself something of a reputation as a trailblazer in the US agricultural industry for the thoroughness of its sustainable farming practices.

Each day Fair Oaks converts the 5.7m litres of manure produced by its 36,000 cows into a natural gas. This generates electricity to power the buildings, machinery, offices, cheese factory and gift shop on the farm, which is also an educational theme park drawing around 500,000 visitors a year. Attractions include a robotic cow for milking, 12 varieties of cheese and ice cream being made, cows giving birth, and a magnetic ‘calcium climber’ wall for kids.

The farm’s gas also powers the 42 trucks that transport milk to processing plants as far away as Tennessee – saving 7.6m litres of diesel fuel a year and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Previously, the manure was stored in pits for use as a fertiliser, but they stank. It also posed an ecological threat. When methane from animal waste is released into the atmosphere, it is 21 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat and contributing to climate change. Fair Oaks wanted to confront the challenge.

With some funding from the State of Indiana, they invested in a $12m anaerobic digester, capable of processing waste into a natural gas. Three times a day, as the cows are milked on a slow-motion merry-go-round, manure is vacuumed from barns and processed. This captures 98% of the methane that would normally be released by the dung.

The gas earmarked for transport is piped to fueling stations, where it is compressed and distributed to trucks. Water used in the process is recycled to grow a source of protein that enhances the herd’s feed, and whatever is left over is used as a fertiliser. “We intend to take manure to the next level,” says co-owner Mike McCloskey.

With its mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Fair Oaks’ goal is to reuse everything, become self-sufficient and achieve a zero carbon footprint. “We are committed to educating the public, to protecting the environment, caring for our animals and ensuring the highest quality products possible,” says chief executive Gary Corbett. “Sustainability isn’t just something we claim, it’s how we live.”

In another venture called Fairlife, Fair Oaks has teamed up with Coca-Cola to make high-protein milk shakes. These, they claim, contain more calcium than normal milk, less sugar and no lactose or gluten. The first product in the range is called CorePower. The idea was mocked by US satirical talk show host Stephen Colbert, who said: “If it doesn’t work, they can always go back to Milk Classic,” but the health and wellness drinks market is booming. Fair Oaks has developed another variant known as Mootopia, sold by Texan supermarket HEB.

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