Two Weld County companies are cashing in on a plan to turn manure into energy.

JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding has been exploring ways to do just that for the last five years. Through a partnership with Harsh International Inc. of Eaton, a theory is close to becoming a reality.

Basically, the system would burn feedlot manure to the point that it produces a gas that could be used to produce steam energy.

Recently, JBS Five Rivers and Harsh demonstrated a prototype gasifier of what JBS intends to install at its newly renovated feedlot at Kuner, which is east of Kersey, by the end of this year. The company intends to install three of the Harsh-built commercial gasifiers, which will replace the feedlot's three boilers that are used to flake corn, part of the diet given to cattle.

Andy Brown of Harsh International said the gasifier was created by a Canadian inventor about 10 years ago. Harsh has developed what Brown called a strategic alliance to build the prototype — and eventually commercial units. The prototype can burn about 250 pounds of manure per hour; the commercial unit will handle 4,200 pounds.

"This is the most exciting thing I've been involved with in my career," Brown, 79, said. He bought Harsh in 1986, and he now runs the company with his son, Bob. For years, Harsh has been involved in the manufacture of hydraulic lifts and other agriculture equipment.

Tom McDonald, vice president of environmental affairs for JBS Five Rivers, said the new equipment will result in an 80 percent reduction in the natural gas that is presently used to operate the boilers. Each of the gasifiers, he said, will cost $425,000.

In comparison, John Slutskey, who operates a dairy near Wellington and is chairman of the Colorado Air Quality Commission, said a digester for his dairy would cost $1.3 million, or $1,000 a cow. But he and McDonald were quick to point out that a gasifier and a digester are two different types of technology. Feedlot manure, they said, contains a lot of dirt, unlike that of dairy manure, since those cows stand on solid flooring such as concrete.

McDonald said while JBS Five Rivers has been looking at the technology for the past five years, it was about two years ago when company officials approached Harsh to see if it could build the gasifier.

The dirt in the feedlot manure presented a problem, McDonald said. JBS, he said, learned of a solid fuel burner in use at a Wisconsin dairy and took a load of feedlot manure to that dairy to see if that technology would work.

"What happens when you throw dirt on a fire? It puts it out and that's what we did," McDonald said.

So they went back to the drawing board, and Harsh developed the answer.

The gasifier takes the manure into a container much like what McDonald called a "pizza oven," only once operational, it operates at 1,600 degrees. The gas coming off the manure is then pulled into a waste heat boiler, which produces the steam to flake the corn. A byproduct is ash, which also holds potential as it can be mixed with cement to then be used to pave roads, or in the case of JBS Five Rivers, to provide a hard surface at its feedlots, which would remove much of the dirt from manure.

Following their recent demonstration of the gasifier at Harsh, JBS officials gave officials from the county health department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission a tour of the Kuner feedlot. An $18 million renovation of that feedlot is scheduled to be complete by October, said Nolan Stone, manager of the lot.

The first 100,000-head feedlot in the world when opened, JBS Five Rivers is in the process of replacing all the wooden feed pens with steel post pens and completely changing the drainage pattern, which in the past, ran to the north and south. Now, water runs to the north into newly constructed retention ponds, which can handle 286 times the capacity of any major storm that is required under current regulations.

Water from those ponds, once cleared of solid matter by another new technology being developed, is used to irrigate 450 acres of land around the feedlot, which produces some of the feedstuffs needed by cattle. An agreement with B.O.S.S. Composting also has been developed, and that company is using manure to make compost at the west end of the feedlot.

"We've practically got a new feed yard," McDonald said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.