Berrybank farm pigsty in central Victoria benefits from greening

Pigsties may not have a reputation for being light and green, but some pig farmers have benefited from climate action for decades.

Jock Charles, who runs Berrybank Farm, northwest of Ballarat, said his pig farm started investing in waste-to-energy technology 30 years ago.

“It was all done to try to protect the environment and to make the place better, more sustainable,” he said.

“It took about two and a half years to build the biodigester.

“We tried to self-finance part of it. It was expensive. It cost about $ 2 million at the time, which was a reasonable amount of money.”

Mr Charles said the biodigester reduced the farm’s energy production by 90%.

“We produce pretty much the same as what we use, but during the day when we’re running the flour mill and a few other things, we get electricity from the grid, and then in the evening we export electricity. “

Jock Charles says he thinks it’s important for farm businesses to try to be as environmentally conscious as possible.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

Mr. Charles said despite the high initial cost of the on-farm installation; the business would not be as profitable now without the biodigester.

“It has been really good. A few other companies have come out of it,” he said.

“You wouldn’t get a big return just on the basis of electricity manufacturing, but if you factor in all the other environmental benefits, as well as the fact that we’ve been able to produce [fertiliser] that we sell in the garden industry, [it’s profitable].

In addition to the financial bonuses, Mr Charles said the pigsty, which houses 20,000 pigs, was also a more pleasant place to work.

“Seventy percent of the smells in pigsties come from lagoons or ponds [that are used to store manure], so if you can eliminate the ponds, which we were able to do, then you are only dealing with 30% [of the smell]. “

“There are 80,000 liters of liquid waste [per day], which roughly equates to the waste of about 100,000 humans. ”

Berrybank Farm is home to approximately 20,000 pigs.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

How it works

Biodigestion is the process of creating an energy-rich gas by placing organic material, such as pig manure, in an airtight container to break it down.

“So basically what we’re doing is taking the unused portion of the food that the pork couldn’t convert to protein or muscle, and we take the energy out of it.

“There are literally billions of small anaerobic bacteria [that break down the manure], and all of this activity produces methane which can be used to power an engine and which drives a generator. “

A tractor pouring fertilizer into a truck
Mr. Charles says that without the secondary activity of fertilizer, the barn would have a hard time making a profit.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

What remains after this bio-digestion took place, Charles said, was a nutrient-rich aqueous substance, which the company used to make 60 different varieties of fertilizer.

“We thought we could add value to the process, and we started playing, mixing it with different things,” he said.

A hand picking up the fertilizer
The rich by-product of Mr. Charles’s farm waste-to-energy project is mixed with wood chips to make fertilizer.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

This environmental push is more and more common in the industry.

Australian Pork Limited chief executive Margo Andrae said 16% of the pork industry is powered by on-farm methane converted to energy.

“We are also seeing additional removals from solar energy. We are seeing more and more of our farms adopting this technology,” she said.

Ms Andrae said the pork industry had “led the way for decades” compared to other livestock industries in Australia.

A graph of agricultural emissions
The main emissions from pigs come from their manure, but these represent only 2% of total agricultural emissions.(Provided: Institut Grattan)

According to a study published by the Grattan Institute, the entire agricultural sector is responsible for around 15% of Australia’s emissions..

Of this, beef, sheep and dairy products are the biggest contributors. The main emissions from pigs come from their manure, but these represent only 2% of total agricultural emissions.

Industry incentives

The pork industry has reduced its emissions by 69% since 1980, said Ms Andrae, and has also cut water use by around 80%.

“A lot of our larger barns are able to take the infrastructure and put it on the farm, but it’s not cheap,” she said.

“But for our small producers, with less than around 6,000 pigs, we hope to work closely with the government on opportunities to help these producers.”

Pigs sitting in the hay
The pigs at Berrybank Farm produce approximately 80,000 liters of waste per day.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

There were few incentive programs in the 1980s for companies to invest in renewable energy projects, but eventually Berrybank Farm received financial rewards from the government for its efforts.

“We finally got the renewable energy credits, and that has certainly helped a bit, especially as the system is aging now. It takes a fair bit of maintenance,” Charles said.

“This little bit of money helps, and I think it’s important to encourage others to embrace this kind of technology as well.

A man using a machine in a shed
Charles says the money the company received from renewable energy grants was used to upgrade its 30-year-old bio-digester. (ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)
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