The Methane Man Dennis Haubenschild pioneers manure-to-technology

January 12, 2010 10:03 AM
"Every 100 cows on this farm are producing the equivalent energy of a barrel of oil each day,” says Dennis Haubenschild, pictured along with his wife, Marsha.

Google "Dennis Haubenschild” and several hundred links pop up. Forty-some pages, in fact.

Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to E/The Environmental Magazine to Dairy Today has featured some aspect of Haubenschild's innovative dairy operation. Each lauds Haubenschild for his entrepreneurial skill, environmental activism or creative problem-solving techniques.

Leading research institutions, such as the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, have partnered with Haubenschild in developing cutting-edge, renewable energy technology.

It's little wonder Haubenschild was selected as the 12th Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Today. He will be honored this month at the Dairy Forum in Phoenix, Ariz.


Haubenschild's interest in biogas stems from a "history class gone bad,” jokes Haubenschild, who dairies with wife, Marsha, and sons Bryan and Tom near Princeton, Minn. They and 34 employees (20 full-time equivalents) manage 1,100 dairy cows and farm 1,250 acres.

But the story starts more than half a century ago. In 1952, Haubenschild's parents, Donald and Myrtle, moved from the heavy, deep soils of southern Minnesota to Princeton, some 40 miles north of Minneapolis. When the snow melted, they discovered
that their deep, sugar-sand soils were depleted of both nutrients and organic matter after years of continuous potato production.

Wanting to dairy farm, they soon learned that every pitchfork of cow manure was a precious resource that could help to revitalize the soil, its water-carrying ability and its productive capacity.

"I never forgot that lesson. My thing back then was to be earth neutral—to give back to the soil what I took out of it,” Haubenschild says. "And that has evolved to being carbon neutral to being fully sustainable.”

That's where the history lesson comes in. In junior college, Hau-benschild researched a paper on Germany's use of biogases in World War II. Lack of access to oil, by both the Germans and the Japanese, contributed to the start of that war.

"U.S. airmen were told they would know they knocked out German electrical generating capacity when the city streetlights went out. But the lights never dimmed, because the Germans were using biogas to fuel them,” he says.

Haubenschild then recognized the untapped potential of biogas production from animal manure. So when he returned to the farm in the mid-'70s, he wanted to utilize the energy in cow manure to power the electrical demands of the farm.

"Every 100 cows on this farm are producing the equivalent energy of a barrel of oil each day,” Haubenschild says. "I wanted to build a methane digester, but I got laughed out of every bank I went into.”

Some 25 years later, Haubenschild's dream finally materialized. In 1999, he started producing biogas and generating electricity from the first-ever plug-flow methane digester built on a Minnesota dairy. The 21-day cycle processes 20,000 gal. of manure each day, producing 60 cu. ft. of gas per minute and 120 kilowatts of electricity per hour. Enough electricity is produced to power every electrical motor on the dairy plus 60 to 70 area homes.

But the digester is just the start of the innovation at Haubenschild Farms. The 3406 Caterpillar engine consumes only about 80% of the biogas the digester produces. For the past four years, rather than simply flare off the excess, Haubenschild has been working with engineering professors and students from Minnesota and North Dakota to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The dream is to convert the unused methane either to highly available ammonia fertilizer or hydrogen fuel for cars and trucks (much like the Germans did in WWII).

The digested solids also provide bedding for the dairy's two freestall barns. The Haubenschilds add recycled newspaper to the digested solids, which dries down the solids to make them a better, fluffier bedding source. Plus, the newspapers add carbon to the mix, creating greater efficiency as they are cycled through the digester.

Solids are also used to fertilize fields and rebuild soil organic matter.

Because the manure has been digested by microbes, nutrients in the manure are more readily available to plants. Last year, Haubenschild estimates, he saved more than $100,000 in fertilizer costs by using the digested solids.

This plug-flow methane digester produces enough energy for the 1,100-cow Haubenschild Dairy plus 60 to 70 homes.
Dry cows and pregnant heifers stay clean, dry and comfortable in Haubenschild's compost barn, one of the first of its type to be built in Minnesota.
The Haubenschilds were the first of two U.S. dairy farms to sell carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. The methane digester processes and captures about 90 tons of carbon equivalent per week. At $3/ton, selling the credit generates some $14,000 of income annually.

While not a large sum, that amount could easily triple if the pending cap-and-trade legislation makes it out of Congress this year.

But the innovations don't stop there:

  • The family built one of the first deep-bedded compost barns in the country. Used to house 125 dry cows and pregnant heifers, the barn offers the ultimate in cow comfort.
  • Several years ago, the family started working with a professional risk management firm to hedge both feed and milk prices. In 2009, they hedged about 45% of their milk for $17.36/cwt. Turning such marketing authority over to an outside firm might make many producers queasy. Not the Haubenschilds. "We hire people to drive expensive tractors here, too, and we trust them to make the right turns when they're supposed to. It's the same with marketing,” says Marsha Haubenschild.
  • The Haubenschilds are the sole suppliers of pregnant dairy cows to the Minnesota State Fair's CHS Miracle of Birth Center. The barn features live birthing demonstrations of cattle, sheep and pigs at the fair's 10-day run in late August. FFA, which sponsors the center, estimates more than a million fairgoers visit it each year. "It's the most popular feature,” says Brienna Schuette, the fair's marketing and communications manager. Supplying cows to the fair can be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to connect with consumers who are now three and four generations removed from the farm, Haubenschild says.
  • The family hosts farm school tours at least once per month, with ages ranging from elementary to college students. They've even been known to invite members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to the dairy to show how the cows are being pampered. Doing so has raised eyebrows, but has also earned respect. "You really do treat your cows with dignity,” one PETA member told Dennis after a personal tour.

That kind of respect is reflected throughout the industry. "Dennis Haubenschild is an innovative leader, friend to the environment and a steward of the industry who uses education and experience to teach others,” says Greg Steele, who nominated Haubenschild for the award. Steele is vice president of agribusiness capital for AgStar Financial Services.

John Vrieze, the 2001 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year, agrees: "To me, the biggest reason Dennis should receive this award is for his groundbreaking work in the field of renewable energy and how it can be implemented at the farm level.

"His greatest contribution is his willingness to share his successes and failures with whoever asks,” Vrieze adds. "That selfless quality is truly a sign of a great individual and dairy industry leader.”

Bonus content:

Click here to watch a video Haubenschild Farms from AgDay.

Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year program

Welcome to Haubenschild Farms

Haubenschild Farm Vision Statement

Haubenschild Farm: Closing the Loop

Cap & Trade

Compost Barn

Risk Management

Miracle of Birth Barn at Minnesota State Fair

Previous Winners:

2009 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year: Harry DeWit

2008 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year: Charles Fletcher

2007 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year: Joseph Gallo Farms


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