When the chips are down: cow manure plentiful and cleaner than coal

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

“They think they can make fuel from horse manure – now, I don’t know if your car will be able to get 30 miles to the gallon, but it’s sure gonna put a stop to siphoning.”

-Billie Holiday

In a little more than a week, thousands of people, some of them from other nations, will gather about a mile from my home here in Sauk Prairie to celebrate poop.

Cow flop, to be precise. It’s called the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival, and it’s been a cash cow for our town for over a quarter of a century. The event’s Web site notes that cow chips were once used as a source of fuel for cooking and heating by early settlers. The dried meadow muffins burned with intense heat and gave a clean, bright, odorless flame free of soot.

Now we toss them around for sport.

I’m all for good clean fun, but it’s even more exciting to think that cow manure from area farms could soon be used to fuel our cars. As Edward Humes highlights in an article in the Sept/Oct edition of Sierra Magazine, a¬†Western Washington University¬†professor and his students have built a hybrid car that gets the equivalent of 94 miles a gallon using fuel made from cow manure. As amazing as the source of the fuel and the mileage is the projected equivalent cost per gallon: about $2.50.

As the article notes, burning this biogas is a huge winner for the environment because it displaces fossil fuels and removes a major source of methane (22 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere.

That blows corn ethanol away, which at best yields the same amount of energy used to manufacture it, has a huge carbon footprint and may contribute to food shortages around the world. I for one would like to see our dairy farmers being paid to produce fuel from something that can’t be eaten.

The great irony here? Crap is a heap of a lot cleaner than coal and oil, the two filthy fuels that currently provide most of the power for our state and are contributing to global warming. Coal and oil are not renewable. Manure is. Perhaps the stuff could even be used to power the University of Wisconsin’s Charter Street plant in Madison, which the university system agreed to convert from coal to biomass after the Sierra Club sued for violations of the Clean Air Act.

Dane county is on the right track with the manure digesters it’s building to produce biogas, but there’s no reason every county in the state can’t have several of them.

Let’s not throw it all away. Let’s find more ways to turn manure into a cash cow for our farmers and rural communities.



  1. Interesting. The pioneers indeed did burn hard chips in the winter for heat. The problem with this is that it addresses the problem without addressing the cause. The reason we have SO much excess poop is because of factory farming. If we still had small, sustainable farms, we would not have the problems caused by so much manure.

  2. Good point, Alyssa. Pasturing cows and smaller farms would definitely be better, and I’m all for moving in that direction. Meanwhile we have the large farms and they’ll be with us for a while. The big CAFOs, and even some smaller, family operations, often produce more manure than they can (safely) spread, so why not use it to generate energy. That will also keep it out of our waterways after the deluges that are becoming more common due to global warming.