Dairy farms have received major flack for their contributions to climate change, but one dairy farmer in northern California is taking major steps to reduce – and even reverse – his farm’s effect on the environment. Albert Straus’ methane-generated electricity solution turns cow waste into fuel for his entire dairy farm, including his brand-new full-scale electric feed truck.
Straus Family Creamery: A Beacon of Sustainable Dairy Farming
The global carbon footprint of animal agriculture is astronomical: the industry contributes one-fourth of the total global water footprint according to WaterFootprint.org, 19 percent of which comes entirely from dairy production. Compounded with the fact that the methane produced by dairy cows alone makes up two percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide according to the FAO report “Greenhouse Gas Emissions From the Dairy Sector: A Life Cycle Assessment,” dairy production seems pretty far from being even remotely environmentally friendly.
But in California, where 25 percent of the state’s methane emissions come from the dairy industry, the Straus Family Creamery has long been looking for ways to offset the environmental cost of producing dairy.
Albert Straus is the second generation owner of the family farm, founded by his father in 1941. Following in the footsteps of his parents, who were committed to sustaining small family farms in the area, Straus took over the management of the farm in the 1970s and immediately beginning to implement innovative practices that would keep the farm sustainable: he converted to a no-till system, developed a manure wastewater pond system, and even transitioned the farm to organic.
“I’ve always looked at how to minimize the effect on the environment, help to revitalize rural communities, and help to make a sustainable farming system that farmers can profit from,” says Straus.
The Truck that Runs on Cow Poop
Straus’ newest sustainable farming brainchild is a semi-truck that runs entirely on electricity, a project he’s been mulling over for about eight years with the goal of allowing his dairy farm to transform the waste it produces into something useful.
The method to the methane madness is a biodigester capable of turning manure into clean energy and heat, a tool that the Creamery has been using since 2004. The $330,000 system includes an 80 kW generator, which produces about 28,800 kWh of clean electricity every month. The investment should pay for itself within the next few years and will eventually save the farm up to $50,000 in costs per year, especially now that all of the farm’s electricity comes from methane gas.
With Straus’ new idea, methane gas also replaces fossil fuel: Albert Straus and a local mechanic collaborated to convert a 33,000 pound International Harvester into an all-electric hauler about a month ago, closing the dairy farm production loop: the truck brings the feed to the cows that make the waste to fuel the truck… and on and on it goes.
“The idea is that the cows will be powering the truck that feeds them,” says Straus.
While this is an exciting innovation, Straus doesn’t have lofty goals about making a whole fleet (so Elon Musk has no need to worry about competition with Tesla’s forthcoming electric semi truck).
“The truck goes, like, a mile up the hill to feed the heifers, and it doesn’t need to go that far or that fast,” says Straus. “I wasn’t trying to make a solution that was going to work for everybody – I was just trying to make a solution that would work for us and other farms.”
The Future of Green Dairy Farming
But Straus won’t stop here. He has worked with the Marin Carbon Project to develop a 20-year plan to sequester 2,000 metric tons of carbon every year (80 percent of which will come from the methane digester), becoming the first dairy in the state to embrace an on-site carbon farming plan.
The dairy farm is also taking steps to restore carbon to the soil via several techniques including composting. A 2014 study from the University of California at Berkeley showed that if between a quarter-inch and a half-inch of compost were applied to just 5 percent of California’s rangelands, it would sequester 28 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere (equivalent to the annual emissions of 6 million cars – nearly half of the vehicles in the state).
Straus isn’t just applying these policies on his own farm or demonstrating sustainable farming practices to the eight other family farms that provide milk to the Creamery. He’s working on helping to build and operate methane digesters for other farmers, especially given the new law passed in California dictating that farmers must reduce their methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030. As a farmer himself, Straus is perfectly positioned to advocate for farmers in the development of this project, noting that they already have a hard enough time managing their farms without having to manage their energy resources as well: any solution must be simple to implement for it to be a success.
“What I’ve tried to do is create a sustainable organic farming model that is good for the earth, the soil, the animals, and the people working on these farms,” Straus told Tree Hugger.
The truck, in other words, is just one piece of a much greater sustainable dairy puzzle.
“It’s kind of part of a bigger picture,” says Straus. “I’m trying to show that organic family dairy farms are part of the solution to climate change through carbon farming, methane digesters, organic farming practices… and now closing the loop using electric vehicles and getting off the fossil fuel.”