Making Turkey Less Foul

on November 20, 2011 at 9:00 AM

As Americans stock up on Turkey meat for Thanksgiving dinners, farmers scramble to feed those families. When its all over, they will be left with not only some profit but also with mounds of a less heartwarming byproduct: turkey litter.

Of the various kinds of poultry, turkeys produce substantially higher amounts of waste because they tend to be larger. Having recognized this several years ago, the US Department of Agriculture has been encouraging farmers to convert turkey litter into energy by using the methane gas in the waste to create electricity.

In Michigan, year-round turkey farm Sietsema Farms was the recipient of a $500,000 energy grant and $700,750 energy loan from USDA Rural Development to build a $3 million waste to energy system. In October 2009, the project was commissioned and Heat Transfer International (HTI) of Kentwood and The Right Place Inc. of Grand Rapids were chosen to build the rotary gasifier.

When its completed this December, the gasifier system will take approximately 70,000 pounds of turkey waste every day from the 1.5 million turkeys on the farm to a unit where it will be superheated and turned into gas. The gas will heat water in a boiler which will spin an electrical turbine. The system will produce about 12,000 kW of power a day from about 206,400 pounds of steam. Electricity produced will be cycled directly back onto the farm to power the feed mills which carry feed to the turkeys and also carries waste back out to the gasifier.

Rick Sietsema, one of the farm owners, told Breaking Energy that the process took three years because the device is still quite new to the market.

“You look at a Ford, or a Chevy and you buy it. This is still quite new in the industry,” he said There are only a “a few small units out and about,” he said. Most methane energy devices burn the litter itself, he said, which is different than the Siestema Farms system of gasifying the waste.

Siestema Farms operates five turkey farms with a 45-mile radius. The “closed-loop” system, as Siestema called it, will take a waste product and make it valuable.

“It appears as though that’s the direction we are going to take our business in,” he said. He sees the system as a “socially responsible manner of taking care of the byproduct of raising livestock.” He compared the process of adding value to litter by converting it into electricity to the process of converting turkeys into meat.

One of the primary challenges rural farmers face is transporting their various products along long distances. Having electricity generation on site is extremely helpful for farming operations, Alec Lloyd, public information coordinator for the USDA Rural Development in Michigan told Breaking Energy. He said he hopes more farmers will be able to use such systems to both power their own farming operations and even make some additional money by selling the extra power back to the grid.

The USDA estimates the Sietsema farm will see a full return on investment within four years of the biomass plant’s operation.

Photo Caption: With less than one week before Thanksgiving, hundreds of turkeys fill a barn at the Willie Bird Turkey Farm November 19, 2006 in Sonoma, California. It is estimated that more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the US during Thanksgiving meals.