Innovations in ag aim to protect the environment

On a sunny Monday in September, Scott County farmer Bryan Sievers watched as workers from St. Louis-based Roeslein Alternative Energy dug a trench for a gas pipe near the two 970,000-gallon anaerobic digesters on his Stockton farm.

Siever’s operation is one of 14 public and private entities in Iowa and Missouri working with Roeslein to prove how farmers can use manure from their animal operations, as well as cover crops and natural prairie grasses on their properties, to protect and enrich the soil, prevent erosion, protect water and drastically cut carbon and methane emissions while at the same time producing much-need energy in digesters. And it’s got to be economically viable; in other words, profitable.

To that end, Roeslein received an $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. This grant program will be used over the next five years to prove the concepts of its founder, Rudolph Roeslein. The majority of the grant will go to producers and/or landowners to offset costs of converting land to native prairie or to plant winter-hardy cover crops.

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Roeslein Alternative Energy

Rudolph “Rudi” Roeslein, pronounced “race line,” immigrated to the United States with his family in 1956 from the refugee camps of Austria. His hard work has made him a successful businessman.

His business, Roeslein & Associates, provides consulting, procurement and project management services on top of its engineering, manufacturing and construction capabilities. The company employs 1,500 worldwide.

But as an avid outdoorsman, Roeslein is also passionate about conservation, protecting the air, soil and water, and renewable energy streams that benefit the environment and are economically viable for the smaller farmers.

That passion for conservation has won him many awards and led him to create Roeslein Alternative Energy.

“I’m so grateful to be in this country,” Roeslein said, “because I got to come to America and build a business.”

Roeslein said he had built aluminum plants all over the world and had placed billions of dollars of American equipment all over the world. He has built facilities in Russia and China, and modular systems in China, Poland, Brazil and the United States.

But in doing that, Roeslein said he always was concerned about what he could do for the environment.

“My passion has always been wildlife,” he said. As a child in the refugee camps, Roeslein said he would wander into the woods to see the wildlife there, as well as the trees and plants.

“I look at the Earth as the most complex process that I’ve had the pleasure to look at,” Roeslein said. The parameters needed for life to exist on earth are small and fragile, he added. Roeslein said he wanted to figure out a way to help preserve that narrow window for life to exist.

He created Roeslein Alternative Energy to prove out a three-pronged approach to creating renewable energy using the anaerobic digesters. It’s not just cow and pig dung. The approach also uses cover crops and the planting of prairie grasses that will protect the soil from erosion, provide soil nutrients, remove CO2 from the air and sequester it in the ground. The cover crops and the mowing of the prairie grasses will provide fuel for the digesters.

In the Horizon I project, Roeslein partnered with livestock producers to place impermeable covers over hog manure lagoons to capture the methane gas created by anaerobic digestion. The gas was upgraded to renewable natural gas and injected into the natural gas pipeline grid where it is available for customers.

Roeslein initially spent $57 million of his own money to demonstrate the Horizon I concept where animal manure from the swine industry could solve many environmental issues. This also provided another income stream to the hog production industry. 

The first step was to prove that the methane captured could be used to produce a source of energy while mitigating the challenges of odor and rainfall effects on existing lagoons.

Roeslein started with a project in northern Missouri with Premium Standard Farms. Premium Standard Farms was later sold to Smithfield Foods.

Roeslein had to establish new pathways to qualify the methane gas with the EPA and with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) since these did not exist at the time he started these projects.

The Horizon I projects received the lowest Carbon Intensity scores in the Swine Industry through CARB’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

The company also has completed projects for numerous other customers in Iowa, Texas, Utah and Arizona.

Their projects are currently capable of producing energy while eliminating more 300,000 tons of CO2 equivalent methane annually. 

Roeslein said his vision for prairie restoration called for providing a diverse mix of prairie biomass plantings that would be similar to those grasses native to the ecosystem. All of which increase native habitat for countless wildlife species.

Planting similar grasses to those naturally found in the ecosystem become a valuable resource for the area’s birds, insects and animals to thrive in these areas, he said. The emphasis on perennial grasses to mimic the natural conditions for these grasslands helps to provide ongoing food and water for the animal and bird population.

Restored prairies provide nectar that supports insects to benefit pollinated food crops in nearby fields.

A vision for the prairie

One of Roeslein’s primary missions is to restore and convert 30 million acres of marginal land to native prairie grasses in just 30 years. Roeslein calls it the 30/30 Vision. This vision benefits farmers economically and positively impacts surrounding ecosystems by creating homes for various types of wildlife, providing erosion control and preventing flooding. Currently, the company is undergoing multiple prairie-restoration efforts with Smithfield Hog Production.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said, “is a major step toward advancing RAE’s core mission to develop a market-based solution that puts an economic value on restored native grasses and prairie plants, by using the sustainably harvested biomass to create renewable natural gas.

“Since founding RAE, our overarching goal has been to provide farmers an alternative way to use land, especially highly erodible acres, in ways that will benefit the environment, wildlife and their own livelihood,” Roeslein said. “This funding will propel Horizon II forward more rapidly than otherwise would have been possible. We will show how farmers and landowners can do well for themselves while also providing ecological services and wildlife benefits.”

Endless supplies

Sievers, the Scott County farmer, has been generating biogas and electricity from his two anaerobic digesters since 2014.

His cattle-feeding operation provides him with an endless supply of manure. Food waste supplies from the food processing industry have provided other organic materials from which to make biogas.

The anaerobically digested material that comes out of the digesters also supplies Sievers with an endless supply of natural fertilizer for his farming operations. This nutrient-rich material, which is also rich in organic matter, is applied to his and neighboring fields in the spring and fall.

The pipeline being built will carry upgraded biogas, referred to as renewable natural gas, from the two digesters and a new 3 million gallon lagoon-style digester to the Northern Border Pipeline about 3 ½ miles to the south of Sievers’ property. That gas will then be sold on the open market.

On another part of his land, Sievers has planted 37 acres of prairie grasses.

“The goal of the process is to make cover crops and prairie grasses profitable for the small farmer to grow,” he said. Sievers will mow the prairie grass acres for the digesters after the bird populations nesting in the grasses have flown from their nests for the remainder of the year. The grasses will then grow back for the next season’s birds and animals to use.

Sievers is in the process of planting about a 1,000 acres of cereal rye that will be harvested as an additional feedstock for the digesters.

Next spring, the cereal rye will be harvested as silage and will then be fed to the digesters with the cattle manure.

After the cereal rye silage is harvested, he will plant soybeans that he will harvest next fall and sell on the market. What he will get are two crops out of that 1,000 acres instead of one.

“Anything that we can do to produce corn, soybeans, perennial prairie and winter-hardy cover crops will help clean the air by sequestering and pulling in carbon dioxide, putting that carbon into the soil, which will improve soil health and organic matter content, which enhances the sustainability of food production for generations to come,” he said.

Neighboring farmers growing cover crops and prairie grasses would sell that product to people with digesters to use.

Another segment is the renewable fertilizer he ends up with that he uses “to put back on the land, which actually adds to lowering the carbon intensity of the process because we don’t have to purchase synthetic fertilizers anymore from Russia, Ukraine or Southeast Asia,” he said.

“We do purchase a little bit of 32% nitrogen to mix; it’s a liquid, to mix with our herbicides in the spring when we spray it on the crops to control weeds. It’s maybe 15 or 20 pounds an acre, which is 5-10 gallons per acre,” he said. “And if it’s 20 pounds of active nitrogen, that’s less than 10% of our total nitrogen that we’ll apply with a synthetic nitrogen source so the other 90% is all organic or renewable nitrogen that we’re producing and 100% of the phosphorus, 100% of the potassium, 100% of the sulfur is all produced here and put back on our farm; and not only our farm but neighboring farms as well. So the model is it can expand that base of enhancing soil health and producing renewable fertilizer more than what we’re producing.”

Sievers said he had saved a lot of money over the past several years because he hadn’t had to buy things like anhydrous ammonia.

Research will be done on his tile lines to see what nitrate levels are like in the water on his property.

“The bottom line is, as long as cows poop, and the grass grows, there will be natural gas,” Sievers said.

The design keeps methane and carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The environment is protected, there is a continuous source of renewable energy and the food network in the form of beef and plants also is protected.

Iowa’s new digesters

“We have nine new digesters that will be producing renewable natural gas in Iowa alone so we’re going from three on-farm digesters to 12 in the next year,” Sievers said. Those will be the nine Iowa dairies that applied for digester permits last year.

The obstacles are the upfront costs, especially for small farmers. Digesters are expensive. 

“The point is the only livestock farms that can afford this are large ones,” he said. It takes a lot of material to produce enough gas to pay for all of this. The two anaerobic digesters on Sievers’ property cost about $7.5 million to install in 2013.

Sievers is confident the lagoon digester he has installed, a completely new design, would significantly lower the cost of processing renewable natural gas, and allow smaller operations to have one of their own.

“I’m pretty confident that’s going to play out, and if it does prove out then we’ve just made another huge leap forward in the industry,” he said. “The capital expense and the operating expense would be much, much lower.”

Much of the cash value comes from the carbon credits that Sievers and other producers will have to sell.

“For instance, refineries in California have to buy carbon credits to offset their emissions,” he said.

“The people who produce the carbon credits are people like us, and so that’s where the exchange happens. So you have to find a buyer and a seller and there’s plenty of demand now. The thing is that the supply is going to increase pretty dramatically because there are plants like this going up all over.”

The grant that Roeslein received is helping to prove out the technology that was generated by private industry, he said.

“This was not the heavy hand of government coming in and saying we need to do this,” Sievers said. “It’s private industry discovering a need and designing a system to meet that need. The grant helps with the costs to prove it out, but it takes private industry to test it all out and prove the technology and the practice.”

“I look at the earth as the most complex process that I’ve had the pleasure to look at.”

— Rudolph “Rudi” Roeslein


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