Integration key to successful bioenergy project

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“Beef is becoming a byproduct.”

That’s how Mike Kotelko of Highmark Renewables describes the situation at the feedlot-centred business he and his brother Bern have developed on their farm.

The Kotelko brothers took over the family mixed farm in the early ’80s. In those days, it was a fairly integrated operation with 120 registered Herefords and 3,000 acres of cropland.

They only started feeding cattle when wet harvests in the Vegreville area left them with a lot of poor-quality grain. Highland Feeders started in 1983 with a joint venture to feed 100 of their own cattle and 100 from a local cattle buyer, and gradually grew. Speaking at Farming Smarter’s annual conference in Lethbridge, Mike Kotelko said he and Bern “spent our summers building pens, the falls processing cattle, and somehow put up silage in between.” They dispersed the purebred cow herd in 1986, sold the combine and grain dryer and became cattle feeders.

By 1995, Highland Feeders had a 36,000-head capacity and was marketing 50,000 to 75,000 head each year, primarily in Alberta. In the 1990s, the brothers developed a natural beef brand, Spring Creek Ranch Beef, in a joint venture with XL Beef, continuing their partnership with Nilsson Brothers, their original custom-feeding partners.

“After 10 years of turning money into shit, we decided to reverse that,” said Kotelko. “We saw the global trend to more environmental and nutrient management regulations, and more regulation of intensive livestock operations.”

Large unit needed

They decided to get ahead of the regulations. Biodigesters are fairly common in Europe, where farms are much smaller and governments subsidize farmers to keep the countryside appealing to city dwellers, but none were big enough to handle the quantity of manure generated by Highland Feeders, or dry feedlot manure.

“Our pilot-scale one-megawatt plant is about 100 to 1,000 times bigger than the biggest of the renewable energy producers in Europe,” Kotelko said. “And their equipment couldn’t handle our feedlot manure. It’s too dirty and too inconsistent a product for any of their biodigesters.”

The first year the Kotelkos had their biodigester, they spent as much time repairing and reconfiguring it as running it. But they were eventually able to process dry, high-solids feedlot manure. They founded Highmark Renewables in 2001 with Mike as general manager. By 2005, Highmark’s digester was the only thermophilic anaerobic digester (heated without oxygen) running on high-solids feedstocks in the country. It produces methane from manure and other material, including slaughterhouse waste.

Heat and electricity

Methane from the biodigester can be burned to power a generator and by September, waste heat will be used to maintain fermentation temperatures for a wheat-based ethanol plant. Feed wheat will come from local producers who are also shareholders in Hairy Hill Power Generation, the energy unit of the farm.

“Second-generation ethanol plants are much more efficient than earlier plants,” said Kotelko. “There’s a positive net energy balance, and globally, about three per cent of feed grains go into ethanol production.”

The wet distillers grains are fed to cattle in the feedlot or sold to neighbours, which produces significant savings as drying the residual grains is a major cost in most ethanol plants.

“We save 15 per cent of the capital cost and 30 per cent of the manpower by using wet product, so the feedlot is able to buy feed at a discount,” said Kotelko. “We take advantage of cattle’s ability to handle a variety of feeds and we’re not using high-quality starch and fat to feed them. Alberta farmers are moving away from producing low-cost feed grains, and we no longer need high-quality silage for rapid, efficient gains.”

The biodigester can process 220 tonnes of manure a day, with another 55 tonnes a day supplied by a hog slaughter operation that had difficulty disposing of its waste, as well as compostable material diverted from a landfill. Deadstock are also processed.

“The biodigester and ethanol plant allow us to run our whole feedlot off the electrical and natural gas grids, and we have byproducts to sell,” said Kotelko. “The biodigestate left after methane production is a high-phosphate fertilizer, cutting the material hauled to the field by 80 per cent.”

At the feedlot, the biodigester has changed manure handling. Pens are cleaned more often, so they stay cleaner, cost less to maintain and keep cattle more comfortable. Processing manure right beside the feedlot is less costly, reduces road traffic and dust compared to spreading it on the land. Kotelko has developed a unique sand and grit recovery system so the material that has defeated other energy plant designers can be recycled through the pens.

The Kotelkos are developing another feedlot-energy integration, using water used to cool the ethanol plant for drinking water for the cattle or for irrigation.

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