A farmer in tough times has to squeeze every penny from his operation, but Huls Dairy is squeezing in places few farmers have.
Dairy cows at the Corvallis farm produce 6 million gallons of manure a year, which this fourth-generation farm in Northwest Montana’s Bitterroot Valley taps for methane fuel and a bagged, organic lawn-and-garden fertilizer sold as Afterburner Boost.
The methane generates enough energy to power Huls’ 350-cow dairy operation, plus one home.
“Our farm has tried to utilize our cows, to market whatever we have,” said Tim Huls, who is facing the lowest payments in nearly three decades for his farm’s milk. “It wouldn’t be enough to offset the dairy crisis, in terms of taking you from being in the red, but at this point it’s paid its own way, particularly in fertilizer. Afterburner Boost does very well in the marketplace.”
Finding small ways to save or make a buck has become crucial for Montana farmers struggling with feast-or-famine market prices. Huls likens the erratic price behavior of his commodity to a seismograph reading for Yellowstone National Park. After receiving a record high price for his milk two years ago, Huls would now need dairy payouts to increase a third just to break even.
For Huls Dairy, the decision to go into the methane energy business was as much about squeezing a dollar as bracing for environmental change. Methane from livestock is increasingly being viewed as a liability for farmers, one they might be penalized for producing possible federal legislation to curb global warming.
Methane is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. By scraping the manure from the alleys inside the dairy barn and feeding the waste into an anaerobic digester, Huls Dairy makes a burnable fuel to power its operation, rather than releasing the gas into the atmosphere.
Other farmers are turning to no-till crop practices to minimize the amount of carbon dioxide they release when seeding. In doing so, they allow pollution captured by crops and pulsed into the ground through roots to remain sequestered in the soil. Their hope is that carbon sequestration will offset their costs under any future pollution penalties imposed by the government.
Like Huls, their environmentalism earns a small profit. Farmers sell their sequestered carbon as offsets for industrial polluters buying green credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. But there are concerns that money for carbon won’t be enough.
“There’s a fair amount of uncertainty in the ag world right now about climate change,” Mattson said. “Where does climate change take ag? When you’re working in a business with low, single-digit margins of two or three percent, it’s a concern.”
At Huls Dairy, Tim Huls is thinking about other ways to save a dollar, like local marketing, or better state and federal price controls to keep dairies from operating at a loss. The milking machine squeezes teats as the cows turn round. The pensive dairy farmer squeezes pennies, nickels and dimes.
“You can’t stop feeding your cows. You can’t stop milking your cows. You do what has to be done every day,” Huls said. “You watch costs. You can get involved in policy at the federal and state levels. And you pray, I guess.”
By TOM LUTEY Billings Gazette – http://www.helenair.com/news/state-and-regional/article_7af7b0d8-c0db-11de-853c-001cc4c002e0.html