Friday, Oct. 18. Another day, another dollar at Top Deck Holsteins in Westgate, Iowa.

At 8:35 a.m., feed is delivered to cows in a free-stall barn. Another group of cows enters the double-12 milking parlor. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune is en route.

Several reporters from newspapers and TV stations have been out to the farm lately, all because of the methane digester. The digester and generating equipment are capable of taking 17,000 gallons of liquid manure a day, capturing methane gas and converting it to electricity.

The reporters love telling about renewable energy.

Obviously, to gain such attention, Top Deck Holsteins is one of the few farms that has actually made the plunge into methane digester technology— not to be in the vanguard, necessarily, but to make more efficient use of the manure generated from 680 cows, and also to minimize odors. After the effluent has been treated in a heated and airtight digester tank, it is moved to an earthen-storage basin and kept virtually odor-free.

The main objective was not to make money, says Roger Decker, who runs the dairy with his three sons. “We wanted to be environmentally friendly to our neighbors — that’s the No. 1 goal.”

The town of Westgate lies only three-quarters of a mile to the east, and with the prevailing winds out of the west, odors from the dairy can drift over there fairly easily. Regardless of whether it is rural Iowa — where people tend to have more understanding and appreciation for agriculture — or the fringes of a metropolitan area in California, odors from livestock operations have become a front-burner issue.  

In fact, air pollution and odor could become bigger issues in the future than water quality.  

Now is the time for the dairy industry to deal with the odor issues on its own terms rather than having the government step in and mandate changes, as it has already done with water quality. 

  “Industry needs to be coming up with its own solutions,” Ron Jones, director of the Texas Institute of Applied Environmental Research, told those attending the National Dairy Leaders Conference recently in Madison, Wis.

Are methane digesters the answer? Many in the industry believe they can be part of the solution.

The Deckers’ project cost $501,500. Alliant Energy Corporation paid for half of that amount in the form of generating equipment. Another $157,000 was a grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. And, nearly $100,000 came out of the Deckers’ own pockets.

Since Alliant Energy owns the generating equipment, it is not required to pay the Deckers for the electricity generated. Yet, Alliant does pay the Deckers several hundred dollars a month to maintain the equipment on-site, and may, in the future, pay for methane gas produced. 

In this case, the digester is not a big moneymaker, but it is not a drag on the dairy operation, either. And, the Deckers have taken steps to minimize odors coming from their dairy, which is definitely worth something.

Odor control has become another cost of doing business.