Dairies Target Energy, Water Use

While many food companies are addressing sustainable-manufacturing practices as part of social responsibility reporting, the dairy segment has more ambitious goals.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Oakhurst had a strong environmental record long before it was recognized with a sustainability award from the Innovation Center in 2012. The dairy has been a major contributor to reforestation efforts in its home town and throughout the state, and 10 percent of annual profits is earmarked for groups that support a healthy environment and healthy children. The dairy was an early convert to environmentally friendly refrigerants in trailers. But its nurturing of the biofuels business in general and support for Maine Standard Biofuels, its local supplier, may be having the biggest impact.

Oakhurst was one of the few takers when the state tried to kick-start the use of biodiesel. Soy-based biofuel initially was introduced in a 20:80 mix, and when a state subsidy ran out, the economics became unfavorable. When the organizers of Maine Standard unveiled a plan to collect fryer grease from area restaurants and convert it to biodiesel, Oakhurst management supported the effort by prepaying for the finished product. The purer fuel resolved filter issues and allowed the dairy to increase the blend ratio to as much as 70:30 in warm weather, without any engine modifications.

“Walmart is all about reducing cost and doing that through sustainability initiatives,” reflects Oakhurst Chairman Bill Bennett. Farm-level activities overwhelmingly affect dairy’s GHG scorecard, and Oakhurst is committed to helping its milk suppliers tackle capital-intense solutions. For example, seed money to study the feasibility of biogas from anaerobic digesters was provided to two farmers.

Hitting a dry spot

Agriculture and power plants account for an overwhelming proportion of U.S. water consumption, which can make water conservation efforts by processors seem somewhat futile. But while big reductions are attainable -- Darigold reduced water per pound of finished goods 15 percent from 2005 to 2011 -- low water prices and the need to maintain high hygiene standards discourage many dairies from addressing water use.

Alfa Laval dairy

Shorter CIP cycles mean more uptime and greater throughput in dairies, and rotating spray balls are one way to accelerate CIP and reduce water use. PHOTO: Alfa Laval

“It is a water-intensive process,” allows Wohlert, and reducing consumption is “tough, because it’s hard to get an economic justification.” Tweaks to standard practices can produce savings, like reusing final rinse water in a CIP cycle for the first rinse in the next cycle. Another option is replacing static spray balls in the CIP system with rotating spray balls.

Water savings vary significantly, depending on the application, but reductions in the 30-50 percent range are a reasonable rule of thumb, one technology provider indicates. The bigger payoff, however, is in the savings in time and chemical use.

About six years ago, Alfa Laval gained 3-A certification for a rotating spray ball adapted from technology developed by a specialist in marine tank cleaning systems. Last year, Alfa Laval added a complementary line from Exton, Pa.-based Gamajet to its portfolio and renamed the division Alfa Laval Tank Equipment, Kenosha, Wis.

In an application involving an unnamed Wisconsin cheese maker, a system installed in two cooling baths replaced five static sprayballs with three rotating devices. CIP routines were performed 3-4 times a week, and the system shaved a third of cycle time, reducing it to 28 minutes. Water use per cycle declined 12-fold, reducing costs to $59 from $723. Downtime reductions enabled the plant to run 28 additional batches per year, about a 3 percent boost in throughput.

Some dairies, such as Oakhurst, are unabashed about discussing the social and environmental aspects of sustainable practices, but pushback against those elements is undeniable. “I have divorced the issues from the ideological fears of the industry and focus on the principles of resource management,” Darigold’s Rowe says. “If I talk about the right thing to do, I’ve lost.” Instead, “the brutal truth” about the cost of waste should drive the discussion.

Elimination of waste often requires capital investment, and customers must acknowledge and account for the cost of sustainability. “Walmart has learned dairy production is an important part of the supply chain, and they’ve started down a path with a lot of bold talk,” Rowe muses. Mainstream dairies may not meet target dates for GHG reductions, but he believes they ultimately will realize those reductions in the course of instituting good business practices that optimize production and distribution.

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