By Emily Hamann
A Whatcom County dairy is testing out a new technology that has the potential to make farms cleaner, greener and more efficient.
Coldstream Farms, a 3,500-cow dairy in Deming, will be the first dairy farm in the state to install filtration technology that turns cow manure into clean water. The system was turned on this month.
The system was developed by Regenis, a subsidiary of Ferndale-based Andgar Corporation. This pilot project is being funded in part by a $930,305 grant from the Washington State Conservation Commission. This technology, while widely used in Europe, has yet to catch on in American dairy farms, Eric Powell, business development director for Regenis, said.
Regenis builds sustainable agriculture technology — specializing in anaerobic digester systems, but also works to build waste treatment and water conservation systems for farms.
“We have been working with various stages of water treatment for a while,” Powell said. If this pilot program proves successful, Regenis hopes to sell the system to dairy farms around the country.
At most dairy farms, manure from the cow barn goes through a primary separation to remove the large solids. Sometimes those large solids are composted and used for bedding for the cows. The liquid is stored, usually in a lagoon or other holding tank. During the dry season, farmers can apply that liquid to their fields, which fertilizes the grass that’s then fed to the cows.
With this new system, the manure will go through additional steps of filtration, first removing all fine solids, then even finer stages of filtering. The end result is clean water, and a concentrate of all the nutrients that were in the original manure.
“You have the same amount of nutrients,” Powell said. “Just in a smaller form, that can be taken out and applied to the field.”
This has the potential to solve a number of problems for the farmer.
Since there’s less volume, farmers don’t have to worry as much about the capacity of their lagoon, especially during the rainy months, when they’re not allowed to use the nutrients on their fields. This concentrate is also easier and cheaper to transport.
At Coldstream Farms, volume of manure is a significant problem.
“We don’t have a nutrient problem,” Galen Smith, co-owner and dairy operations manager of Coldstream Farms said. “We have a rainwater problem.”
Because of its location, the farm gets a significant amount of rain — nearly 20 more inches per year than Bellingham does. That water goes into the lagoons in the winter months, while farmers can’t use it on crops. To help with storage, the farm has to give some of its manure to nearby farms, which have extra lagoon capacity. Those neighbors then use that manure on their own crops, which Coldstream buys back to feed to its cows.
Then during growing season, Coldstream has to buy commercial fertilizer to spread on crops, because it doesn’t have enough manure stored up.
Reducing the volume of manure in its lagoons would make Coldstream Farm much more efficient. The farm sits in a valley — much of its cropland is spread along State Route 9, which means much of the manure has to be transported from the pasture area to the fields.
“We spend a lot of money trucking manure up and down the valley,” Smith said.
The concentrate also has the potential for some new applications.
Powell said that potentially, the bacteria would be removed from the concentrate, which would make it more widely usable on other crops, such as berries and potatoes. Dairy farmers could sell that as fertilizer to other local farmers, who wouldn’t then have to use chemical fertilizers.
“We’re hoping to show that, and have that be part of the benefit for the dairy,” Powell said.
There’s also big potential for the other product of the new filtration system: water. It’s clean enough to give to the cows to drink, to irrigate crops, and potentially, it can even be diverted into a nearby stream or river.
If water from the Regenis system passes water quality tests in this pilot project, it will be diverted into the Nooksack River, which will go toward helping salmon populations.
“Being good stewards and having a good relationship with the community is pretty darn important to us,” Smith said.
In this pilot program, 22,000 gallons per day, about a third of the farm’s total manure, will go through the new system, producing 12,000 gallons per day of clean water and 8,000 gallons of concentrated nutrients.
Smith said if the system works like it is supposed to, he would like to expand its capacity — an investment the farm would have to pay for on its own.
“I’d love to expand it and hopefully process 100 percent of our manure,” he said.
He is hopeful that the system would pay for itself, by making the farm more efficient, and allowing it to expand. If the farm could solve its nutrient storage problem, it could farm more of its own land, which would allow it to expand its herd. It already has capacity for around 600 more cows.
“We’re excited,” Smith said. “We’re excited for the technology.”
But not just for his farm, Smith said. The results of the pilot program at Coldstream could have widespread impacts for dairy all over the state.
“We feel pretty fortunate to be part of the test to try it out.”