This Tractor Runs on Manure

This Tractor Runs on Manure

In a remote corner of the UK, at the Trenance Farm, lies a dairy farm that has embraced cutting-edge climate technology. Although the farm milks its 120 cows by hand, it boasts of one of the most advanced tractors on the planet – the New Holland T6. This machine is revolutionizing the agricultural industry by running exclusively on methane, a natural byproduct of organic decomposition that is notorious for its high pollution levels.

With a tank capacity of 49 gallons, the New Holland T6 tractor produces 62% less nitrous oxide and up to 15% less carbon dioxide, while continuously running on the manure of approximately 75 cows. The machine has a weight of 21,000 pounds and generates as much power as a diesel tractor.

Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, with heavy-duty farm equipment emitting nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, and the flora and fauna raised on the farm releasing a constant cloud of methane, a gas that has a global warming rate 80 times higher than carbon. Although electrification is effectively addressing emissions from cars and trucks, it is not an ideal fit for farm machinery due to their extended operating hours and the intense labor that grinds batteries down quickly.

This mismatch was the impetus for CNH Industrial, an Italy-based rival to John Deere, to start exploring alternative fuels nearly two decades ago. The company chose to focus on methane because, despite its role in climate chaos, the gas is ubiquitous on farms. While carbon emissions decreased during the Covid-19 lockdowns, methane emissions continued to climb, accounting for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to CNH’s CEO, Scott Wine, “Electrification has a role… but it’s unlikely to replace diesel. However, a medium-sized farm will produce more methane than it can use.” Bennamann Ltd, a start-up making synthetic fabric domes that capture wafting methane gas, was critical to the development of the T6. CNH bought a minority stake in Bennamann in 2021 and became a majority owner earlier this month.

Bennamann domes, which stretch over manure lagoons, capture methane gas like a tented parachute in gym class. The company’s critical “aha” moment came when its co-founder, Chris Mann, realized he could use some of the captured gas to cool the rest, turning it into a liquid that is easier to transport and work with in an engine. One dome can store a month’s worth of gas, which can be processed into fuel in about four days.

The T6 costs $203,000, which is approximately 30% more than an equivalent diesel tractor. However, CNH contends that the premium is covered in less than a year of refills via cow. Customers with a methane surplus can sell the gas, burn it in a generator, or even send it back to the grid. Some Bennamann farms earn more money from their manure than from their milk and meat.

CNH is promoting its tractor and manure tent package primarily to dairy farms in Europe, with the UK alone having about 12,000 farms with at least 75 cows. However, the setup can work in virtually any location with a source of methane, from landfills to fish markets. For example, rice patties are a significant source of methane emissions. The Trenance Farm is a beacon of hope in the fight against climate change, showcasing how technology can work together with nature to achieve sustainable agriculture.