Manure and other waste products like leftover whey are heralding a new era for powering cheese production at one US dairy, however the jury is out on the cost and practical feasibility for wider rollouts across Europe.
John Fiscalini, head of both the Fiscalini Farms and Cheese Company, has spent about $4 million on constructing a digester at his farm in Modesto, California, designed to use methane from cows' manure to provide energy for making its cheese products.
Fiscalini said the system, which converts trapped methane released from the manure through an onsite combined heat and power unit, can meet the group's energy and hot water needs, but at some cost.
However, he added that consumer price support and government initiatives would be vital in improving the accessibility of similar technologies in the future.
As the dairy industry faces calls on a global scale to find greener alternatives to milk production and processing, the European Dairy Association says that many schemes are currently being piloted across the bloc to test the feasibility of greener dairy production.
Dr Joop Kleibeuker, secretary general of the EDA, said that biogas digesters similar to the technology used at Fiscalini Farms were being adopted by some European and global processors.
However, he stated that with similar testing on solar energy and wind farms also being undertaken, discussions were ongoing over the best means of ensuring energy neutral dairy production.
"Right now there is not so much a central European initiative [for environmental processing], with a focus much more member state specific," stated Kleibeuker.
The EDA Pointed to a number of trial schemes in the bloc, citing a Dutch program to encourage sustainable dairy initiatives up to 2020, as well as the UK's Milk Roadmap scheme, which targets similar short and long-term industry goals.
As a microcosm for wider European innovation, Kleibeuker said that three pilot schemes were currently under way at a number of plants in the Netherlands, which remained a more cost effective means of trialing innovation.
Amidst growing global interest in green dairy developments from Australia and the US, the EDA added said that September would see a worldwide session held to discuss processor and farmer advances.
The session, which is to be organized by the International Dairy Federation (IDF), will look at the feasibility of adapting to various schemes. These are likely to range from biogas digesters to utilizing large roof space on dairy stores and plants to make use of solar power and windmills, suggested the EDA.
Kleibeuker claimed that although discussions were still in early stages, the last decade had seen the industry moving in a positive direction in regards to greener milk production and processing.
"Compared to a few years ago, there is a lot of enthusiasm and a lot going on with dairy groups," he stated. "This is not just in energy, but can also be seen in water use, with many dairies using anaerobic technology to make use of waste water."
However, despite the industry's enthusiasm, the EDA said there were still difficulties in adapting to seemingly greener technology, particularly when looking at digesters.
In the current economic climate, Kleibeuker suggested that cost factors, related not just with building, but also in transportation of manure for methane-converting systems, could be a setback to rolling out the technology.
John Fiscalini agreed that cost was likely to be a major deterrent to his fellow farmers and processors, both at US and global level, adding consumer and government support would be key to adopting the technology.
"The problem is that unlike computers or watches, the price of these will not decrease much with more of them to be built or ordered," he stated. "The cost of brick and mortar will remain the same."
In improving the attractiveness of such a system for providing potentially greener dairy, Fiscalini said consumers would have to be willing to support such innovation with their wallets.
"If every dairy in the US put in a digester like mine, the cost of milk and all milk products would need to double to keep pace," he added.