December 26, 2008 Wisconsin Manure To Energy

Cows raising a stink: Our alternative energy future

Posted: Dec. 26, 2008

Your typical Wisconsin cow produces somewhere between 109 and 148
pounds of manure per day.

I know this astonishing fact because state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who
lives on a farm in Alma and has a long history of watching where she
walks in her “barn boots,” had her staff research it for me. I did not
ask how they did this, and I do not plan to.

I do know, however, that there are 1.3 million cows in Wisconsin, and
I’m pretty sure each one has a back end. If you take 1.3 million back
ends and multiply by either 109 or 148, you come up with the exact
same result: Yuck.

The senator, her staff and I all agreed that this adds up to no small
poop pile.

“I can tell you from shoveling it that it is a lot,” the senator

“It is,” one of the senator’s poop researchers confirmed in an e-mail.
“In WI, we could make more electricity out of manure then we could w/

This is something to ponder as we head into a new year – and a new
era. We are developing huge wind farms in Wisconsin. People are
talking about setting turbines out on our Great Lakes. Breaking wind
could be the key to the future. The only question now is “What kind?”

Do we harness our skies or our pies?

The latter is possible, according to Vinehout, because poop now can be
loaded into “anaerobic digestion” systems that produce methane. There
are already 22 “digesters” in Wisconsin, which makes us the nation’s

Great loads of Wisconsin cow manure, even now, can be used to power
our computers and light our lamps and run our TVs – which, come to
think of it, might explain what the Packers have resembled on the set
I’ve been watching.

The senator is not bullcrapping us – although, I guess, she’d like

Right now, the digesters are only economically feasible for huge farms
with 600 or 1,000 cows.

But that could change. She says she will push a renewable energy
buyback program. She’s pretty vague about how she’d like it to work,
although it seems clear to me. Since it costs a lot more to produce
energy from a cow’s butt than most other ways, there would have to be
a subsidy, maybe one paid by utilities and its customers to smaller

This could (pardon the pun) easily stink up the deal. Then again,
Vermont already has a program in which people voluntarily pay higher
rates for cow power.

Suddenly, it seems, cows are cool. Everybody wants in. An Associated
Press report about the developing “poop-to-power” business in Idaho
even bragged about that state being “cow pie central.”

That’s a load. Idaho, third in milk production behind California and
Wisconsin, has only 550,000 cows. It can’t hold a candle to us – which
would be pretty dangerous anyway, given all the methane.

We have more than twice as many cows as Idaho, and our cows are the
size of Lake Winnebago. Either that or, given their production, they
are being fed Ex-Lax that large.

Hoping to see such cows in action, I asked Vinehout if I could swing
by the farm. She told me she was going out of town for the holidays
and, anyway, it turns out she gave up her 50 dairy cows after she was
elected in 2006.

She does still have a few horses, and she did keep her barn boots, she
told me, just in case she needs them in Madison. But the cows are
gone, and she misses them.

“Fifty of them,” she said, and I believe it was wistfully, “crapping
all over” the place.