Milking resources for all they’re worth
Edward Perchard finds out how cheese and butter maker Wyke Farms has harnessed the power of waste to make its operations 100 per cent self-sufficient
Waste in the supermarket supply chain is a hot topic right now, though it seems the dairy industry is often overlooked. However, with over 1,000 cows across 1,000 acres of land, and production supplying cheese and butter to the likes of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, waste is inevitable at Wyke Farms.
In 2013, that waste became one of the main drivers in making Britain’s largest family-owned cheese-maker 100 per cent energy self-sufficient. The company has invested £12 million in renewable technology in the last three years, providing itself and its local community with energy from its production process.
Operations at Wyke Farms are close-knit, with three farms within a half-mile of each other supplying a dairy in the Somerset village Wyke Champflower, which furnishes a packing plant six miles down the road in Wincanton.
Though the industrialisation of dairy farming has cut down much of the product waste, it has also required greater numbers of cows producing vast quantities of methane-rich manure. Agriculture, says Defra, is responsible for 46 per cent of the UK’s methane emissions and, with muck from dairy farms traditionally spread over fields, it can also pollute waterways with run-off.
Three 7,000 cubic metre anaerobic digestion (AD) domes, opened in 2013, aimed to change that at Wyke Farms. Any byproducts from the cheese-making process that can’t be used to make butter become part of the 75,000 tonnes of the farm’s organic waste to be turned into renewable gas every year.
And it’s not just Wyke’s waste that’s going to good use: the company purchases ruined crops that can’t be used for bedding or feed from 75 supplying farms, as well as apple pomace from local cider-makers and bread waste from local producers. The resulting gas is treated to provide energy for the farm, while the resulting 100,000 tonnes of digestate, rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, are given for free to supplying farms.
The process generates savings of around £3 million on the company’s annual energy bills, as well as providing income, with around seven million cubic metres of excess gas injected into the grid for use in nearby Breton.
Up to 300,000 litres of waste water from the farm are also recovered every day by its £1.3-million water recovery plant and used to wash equipment and feed cows, while solar panels provide an extra source of energy, including that used to cool and protect fresh milk in the summer.
At the packing plant, packaging has been cut by five per cent and given a resealable design to reduce waste at the beginning and end the product’s life.
The company used a number of government grants to fund the AD plant in 2012, and Richard Clothier, Managing Director and grandson of Ivy, who set up the business 155 years ago, says they invested at the right time, before cuts to renewable energy subsidies that will likely inhibit farm investment in renewables. “Farmers by their very nature are risk averse”, he tells Resource, “so any kind of uncertainty with regard to policy will make them more wary. The uptake amongst farmers has been depressingly low, and we really needed a stable policy period to allow farmers to slowly get on board.”
Wyke Farms also seeks to promote sustainability in the supply chain by paying a premium to any milk suppliers working sustainably, whether by running mini AD plants, using solar energy or reusing water.
Too often, says Clothier, sustainability is deemed ‘non-core’ as businesses compare competing financial demands, but looking at the fresh food industry in particular he spots potential: “Stop using the word ‘waste’ and think ‘fuel’ and ‘opportunity’. Integrate a low-carbon target into your lean manufacture policy and accept that a low-carbon business is a low-cost business.”