Vermont Dairy Farm Turns Manure into Renewable Energy

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Like many top dairy producers in Vermont, Brian and Bill Rowell attribute their success in large part to their ability to think outside the box to maximize available resources to maximize profits. Cow comfort ranks high on their agenda, as does communicating effectively with their 15 fulltime employees and using sustainable practices to protect the environment and preserve the land for future generations.

The owners of Green Mountain Dairy LLC, a 1,050-cow operation in Sheldon, Vt., also embrace changing technologies to improve their herd average and increase revenue from their cows beyond what they get for their milk. Installation of an anaerobic methane digester system two years ago enables them to convert manure produced on the farm into renewable energy. The Rowells milk 900 cows on a twice daily milking schedule in a double- 15 milking parlor, shipping their milk to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.

For their innovative practices, this dairy farm has been named the 2008 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association, in cooperation with the New England Green Pastures Program, select one outstanding Vermont dairy operation for this prestigious award every year. Each nominee is evaluated on several criteria including pasture, crop and herd management programs; production records; conservation practices; contributions to the dairy industry and local community; and overall excellence in dairying.

Glenn Rogers, a UVM Extension farm business management specialist based in St. Albans, notes that "this is a very clean, very well-kept operation. They do an outstanding job with their cows. They pay attention to detail, as indicated by their well-managed herd and quality crops going into the bunkers.

"They also provide lots of outreach to the community with open houses for the public and other farmers to tour the farm and the methane digester system. An estimated 7,500 people from more than 20 countries have toured the farm since 2006. That all played into the judges' decision to present the award to this farm this year."

Numbers needed to make system work

Green Mountain Dairy is one of the largest farms in Franklin County, milking 900 cows and growing corn and grass for haylage on 1,200 tillable acres on farms purchased in Sheldon, Swanton and Highgate, as well as some leased land.

While the farm is regulated by the Large Farm Operations Program of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Brian Rowell is quick to point out that this is a family farm. The numbers are what make it work economically, he explains. "When we were in the planning stages 10 years ago for this farm, we ran the numbers and found we needed 800 cows. Having 400 cows would have worked for us back then, but to succeed, you need to make it work for today and for tomorrow."

"Every farm, be it big or small, in order to be sustainable and continue to be viable in future years, needs sound financial management," says Tony Kitsos, a farm management educator with UVM Extension's Farm Viability Enhancement Program. The Rowells talk daily and consult with their financial advisors on a monthly basis to fine tune their ongoing financial management strategy.

The higher producing animals are milked three times a day. Their rolling herd average is 22,000 pounds of milk per cow with 3.8 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein. To ensure that the herd gets proper nutrition, the Rowells consult with two nutritionists every week. These recommendations enable them to feed their cows a total mixed ration of corn silage, haylage, and grains, balanced according to the energy, protein, and fiber needs for each group of cows according to their stage of lactation.

Managing manure for energy

As with any sizeable dairy operation, efficient management of manure is important. …