Vermont had 2,500 dairy farms in 1993; now it has 1,400. The low price of milk is one culprit: it's down from $17 per hundredweight (12.5 gallons) at its peak to $12 today. To stay competitive, dairies have to be innovative. One way they do that is by going organic, since organic milk fetches $30 per hundredweight. Another way is by emulating Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, Vermont and tapping into cow power.
The farm, long owned by the Audet family, is sizable for Vermont, with 1,000 Holstein milking cows. Not a confinement system (the cows can move around their barn), Blue Spruce isn't organic, either. But it's green in another way. The manure from all those pooping cows, collected by "alley scrapers" that run along the floor like a giant squeegee, is processed into renewable electricity.
There are other benefits as well. David Dunn, a senior energy consultant with cow power sponsor Central Vermont Public Service Company, sticks his hand into a giant pile of powdery waste, unfazed by its former life as cow manure. The odorless byproduct makes excellent fertilizer, poring soil ("Moo Doo") and cow bedding. "This farm doesn't have to spend $1,200 a week on sawdust for bedding anymore," he says.
According to Marie Audet, the family spokesperson, 400 homes could be powered by the electricity produced on the farm. The waste goes into an anaerobic (oxygen-free) digester and sits there for three weeks, during which time it produces methane (a fuel doubling as an extremely potent global warming gas) that is captured and used to power two large Caterpillar electricity generators, totaling 275 kilowatts. …