The cows on Pennwood Farms are happy.
“A happy cow is a comfortable cow and a happy cow produces lots of milk,” said Merv Yoder, construction manager for RCM International.
RCM has designed and installed more than 80 digesters on farms, including an anaerobic digester on Pennwood Farms in Berlin.
Duane Stoltzfus, one of four brothers who own Pennwood Farms, agrees with Yoder that the cows are happy.
“The cows are happier because of the higher use of bedding,” he said. “They use their stalls better and are better health-wise.”
The bedding is a byproduct of the digester process. Of course, the process begins with the cows — or cow manure. The manure goes through pipes to the anaerobic digester, which converts the manure into fuel, fertilizer and cow bedding. Anaerobic digestion is a biological process by which bacteria break down organic materials and kill pathogens.
The digester produces biogas to power a 180-kilowatt engine-generator. The electricity produced is equivalent to the household electricity needs of 630 people. The digester provides all the electricity that the farm needs and the excess goes into the Penelec power grid.
Farmers used to get sawdust from lumber yards for free. Now sawdust has to be purchased because it is also used for pellets for stoves. Pennwood Farms was spending between $60,000 and $80,000 a year for sawdust for bedding and because it was so expensive it wasn’t spread thick in stalls. Now that it is produced on the farm more can be used in the stalls, making for more comfortable cows.
Harvey and Mary Jane Stoltzfus started Pennwood Farms in Lancaster County in 1962 with 18 cows. They moved to Somerset County in 1999. Their four sons now own 600 acres on the main farm located at 262 Sugar Grove Road, Berlin, and farm 1,200 acres of corn, alfalfa and grass hay. They have 600 Holstein and Jersey cows, and milk 500.
In 2009 Pennwood was awarded partial grant funding for a digester project through the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority and USDA Renewable Energy for American Program. The system was designed by RCM International, headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., and built by Pennwood Farms. The project began in the spring of 2011 and went online in April. The Stoltzfuses don’t know yet the percentage of electricity that they will use and that they will sell.
Lambert Rosenbaum, area director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, toured Pennwood Farms on Monday.
“I’m impressed,” Rosenbaum said. “Renewable energy sources reduce the impact of foreign oil, which is the biggest plus we can do in our nation. The Department of Agriculture is all about helping people improve their way of life.”
Rosenbaum is himself a native of Somerset County, having grown up on a farm near Stoystown.
“This is a real good project from an environmental standpoint and an energy standpoint,” said Don Williams, nutrient management program technician with the Somerset Conservation District.
Mark Moser, president of RCM, said a farm needs 400 to 500 cows to make the digester cost effective because of the price of equipment.
Dovan Farms in Brothersvalley Township and Hillcrest Saylor Dairy Farms near Rockwood also use methane digesters to turn cow manure into electricity. Methane digesters were originally developed as a way to eliminate manure’s odor. The digester on Pennwood Farms reduces the odor by about 90 percent, Yoder said.