Roland Kessler is revealing the “udder” truth about his startup: it collects poop for profit. Lafayette-based Eco-Tek LLC helps dairy farmers produce two seemingly unrelated products: natural bedding for their cows and potting mix to sell to horticulture operations. The common link: both products are made from cow manure.
“Like any other biological animal, [the dairy cow] eliminates,” says Kessler, Eco-Tek president and founder. “We take that [manure] and run it through a biological process.”
Eco-Tek created and sells equipment that converts manure into dairy bio-fiber (DBF), the building block for its proprietary cow bedding and potting soil. Kessler says his startup is a logical answer for dairy farmers who have more manure than they can handle.
Kessler notes dairy cows’ manure is comprised mostly of undigested grass. The startup’s two-step biological process begins with the dairy farmer collecting manure and putting it into a piece of equipment called the Eco-Tek Solid Recovery Unit (SRU). Kessler likens it to a separator; it pulls out the solid portion, or undigested grass, and leaves behind the liquid fraction of the manure. The solid portion is then placed into the Eco-Tek Solid Treatment Unit (STU), a series of drums that form a long metal cylinder.
“As [the drums] turn, they tumble the material like a clothes dryer,” says Kessler. “When you rotate the relatively fluffy material in there, it gets intensely hot. There are naturally-occurring microbes that are activated through that and heat up the material. So it’s heated naturally; there’s no added heat or chemicals. That [process] eliminates the odor and kills the pathogens.”
The resulting DBF can provide pathogen-free bedding for cows. The sterile nature of the material is critical in the dairy industry, because suppressing bacteria helps prevent mastitis, the inflammation of the mammary gland and udder tissue. Treatment and control of the disease is a major cost in the dairy industry.
“The industry wants to decrease the bacteria that causes mastitis, because if it gets too high, the cows get infected,” says Kessler. “If it reaches a certain level, you can no longer sell milk from that cow, so having a very clean bedding to lie on is extremely important.”
In addition to eliminating the need to purchase bedding, Kessler says the farmer also has a potential new revenue stream by selling DBF potting soil to the horticulture industry to be incorporated into potting soil. The odor-free, pathogen-free material has physical properties that are very similar to peat moss, a key ingredient in most bagged gardening soil.
Peat moss production has faced criticism in recent years for a variety of reasons, including its release of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. In fact, Britain’s environmental agency says it wants to phase out peat moss for hobby gardeners by 2020, and commercially by 2030.
“[DBF] hits the niche consumers that are, increasingly, wanting to buy something to plant flowers or vegetables in in their backyard and know they’re doing something earth-friendly,” says Kessler.
Farmers purchase the Eco-Tek equipment to process the manure on-site at their dairy farm. Kessler says the system will typically pay for itself in less than three years, and the startup has sold five units so far. He believes manure is a major headache for dairy farmers, who must comply with regulations for manure management to protect water quality.
“As livestock producers get bigger and bigger, there are a lot of associated problems,” says Kessler, “and number one amongst them is manure. We want to turn a liability into an asset.”
Eco-Tek is working with the Purdue Foundry to grow its business, find investors and explore distribution and marketing opportunities. Kessler says the startup also has technologies in the pipeline for hog farmers.
“My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and my dad was a hog farmer. The only thing I was sure of when I graduated high school was I never wanted to be involved in livestock or anything that had to do with manure,” laughs Kessler, who has been a respiratory therapist, paramedic and now entrepreneur. “And now here I am working with manure again. You got to be careful what you say.”
Kessler expects environmental regulations will increase business for Eco-Tek, because its process significantly reduces methane, a greenhouse gas.
Kessler says he’s searching for “the right kind” of investors to help scale Eco-Tek’s business.