When Danny Kluthe fills the fuel tanks in the bed of his Chevy pickup, he drives off without paying a cent. The pigs at Danny and Josie Kluthe’s Bacon Hill Farms have already picked up the tab.
“I’m probably the only farmer who gets 70 miles per gallon from his Duramax diesel pickup,” Danny quips. And he’s not kidding. For every gallon of diesel he buys at the pump, he can drive more than 70 miles. The truck has been converted to run on a mix of 80% CNG (compressed natural gas) and 20% diesel fuel. And that natural gas has been harvested from Bacon Hill’s on-farm anaerobic manure digester.
Swine manure is not a “waste” product at this Dodge, NE, hog operation — far from it. Manure on this farm becomes a resource that would make any Saudi prince proud. The digester, installed in 2005 during an expansion of the Bacon Hill finishing site, also produces enough methane gas to power a Cat 3306 engine turning an 80-kilowatt generator. That setup makes enough electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to meet the demands of about 50 homes.
“The digester is basically a living entity, so we provide it with a feeding of manure every day,” Danny says. “The pigs then replace that manure. I would call that the ultimate renewable energy source.”
All this work with alternative energy began simply because the Kluthes wanted to be good neighbors. Bacon Hill is just across from the historic Sacred Heart Olean rural church, where about 40 families attend services. “Since we’re so close to the church, odor control is a huge priority for us,” Danny says. “I attended a symposium sponsored by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Nebraska Public Power District, and I learned that when manure comes out of an anaerobic digester, it is basically odorless. So it seemed like a perfect fit.”
Bacon Hill had been a farrow-to-finish operation, but changed over to contract finishing in 2000, converting its existing farrowing barn into a 1,000-head nursery and the gestation unit into a 1,200-head finisher. The Kluthes also built four, 1,000-head finishers on a new site.
In 2005, Bacon Hill expanded by adding two, 1,000-head finishers and the anaerobic digester. The hog operation uses some of the electricity generated from the digester, but the majority is sold to the Nebraska Public Power District. The Kluthe family set up the alternative energy enterprise as a separate company called OLean Energy.
Manure collects in pits under each barn, with pits partitioned so that about one-fourth of a pit’s contents can be directed each day by gravity flow to the anaerobic digester. That allows average retention to be about three weeks, during which the manure is kept at about 100° F in the digester, which is an in-ground cylinder that is 80 feet wide and 14 feet deep. It holds 440,000 gallons, and is sealed with an insulated, flexible cover.
The methane produced in the digester is sucked through a pipe beneath the cover and powers the generator, located in a nearby building. Excess electricity is purchased by the Nebraska Public Power District, and is distributed to the adjacent Cuming County Public Power District. “Anyone who turns on their lights in Cuming County can’t tell if their electricity is coming from OLean Energy or the Cooper Nuclear Station,” Danny says.
Cooper Nuclear, in the Missouri River floodplain in southeast Nebraska, is the state’s largest single-unit electrical generator; OLean Energy is Nebraska’s first on-farm generator powered by manure methane. Grants from the USDA and the Nebraska Environmental Trust helped fund the construction.
Danny points out that methane from his digester is the same energy component as natural gas that comes from the nation’s oil fields. The only difference is that dead dinosaurs produced the gas that comes from the oil fields. The natural gas at OLean Energy has a living source that is renewed every day by pigs housed in the farm’s buildings.
That’s why Danny is excited about the next step for his alternative energy enterprise: collecting and compressing the excess biogas, providing fuel for vehicles that have been fitted with a CNG conversion device.
“Right now, we’re running my pickup on a mixture of 80% CNG and 20% diesel, and we’ve converted a farm tractor to run on 90% CNG and 10% diesel,” he says. “The cost savings is really exciting. We are displacing $4-per-gallon diesel with the methane we produce here on the farm, so the payback is phenomenal. We now can make our own electricity, our own vehicle fuel and our own fuel to heat the barns. It’s nice to be energy-independent and not be at the mercy of energy costs.”
After manure has been processed in the digester, it flows to a polyethylene-lined lagoon to be stored until after crops are harvested.
Each fall, the lagoon effluent is applied by a custom applicator who uses a drag hose with a no-till injector system, with the rate of manure application matching the needs of crops as determined by a thorough soil-testing program. “The manure nutrients have given us a boost in yields,” Danny says. “It also has helped improve our soil health by increasing our soil organic matter levels. By obtaining and logging soil and manure samples each year, we can accurately establish a cost-effective fertility program, while enhancing our environmental friendliness.”
Protecting soil and water resources is a high priority at Bacon Hill. The Kluthes established grass filter strips adjacent to waterways in order to protect the Pebble Creek watershed. Various types of grasses are sowed around the buildings to protect against wind and water erosion, as well as to enhance the beauty of the site.
The family uses no-till farming practices to grow a rotation of corn and soybeans. No-till helps conserve valuable moisture for the crops, while also protecting the farm’s rolling hills from erosion. An intensive crop-scouting program helps to identify weed and insect pests, and calls for treatment only when those pests reach an economic threshold. “This not only protects the environment from excess applications of insecticides and herbicides,” Danny says, “it also helps us minimize our costs.”
The Kluthes also has gone the extra mile to protect water quality. Even though it wasn’t required, they installed a 40-mil polyethylene liner in the lagoon as an additional step to prevent any seepage into groundwater resources. “We agitate the lagoon before we apply manure in the fall,” Danny explains. “We were afraid that agitation might disturb the integrity of a clay liner.”
Bacon Hill also uses a series of three monitoring wells to keep a close eye on water quality. Samples are collected each fall and submitted to Midwest Laboratories, and the results help to establish a history of baseline performance for the lagoon.
The family also replaced the nipple waterers in its finishing buildings with wet-dry feeders, cutting water use by a third. Water meters in each barn help Bacon Hill identify excess water use and get a jump on any repairs that may be needed.
Bacon Hill is truly a family farm, with daughters Danielle and Dana involved in various aspects of the farm, and son-in-law Brett Ortmeier handling day-to-day operations at the finishers. “As grandparents of six, it is important that we protect land and natural resources for future stewards,” says Josie. “It is important that we continue to progress so that we can be prepared for the future, and have things ready for another generation to continue the operation.”
The Kluthe family continues to tell its story to the public as well, participating in outreach programs such as the Farmers Feed US campaign. The Kluthes have hosted bus tours for a wide range of people, ranging from chefs to dietitians to environmental law students. “It’s a chance for them to see firsthand how wholesome pork is produced,” Danny says. “It’s important for them to see the high-quality environment in which we raise hogs.”
That pledge to the environment commands a high priority at Bacon Hill.