Roeslein searches to restore acres of native grass

Column By Brandon Butler

Rudi Roeslein is the epitome of the American Dream. He was only seven years old when his family emigrated from Austria to the United States and his possessions fit in the backpack he was carrying.

Today, Roeslein is a very successful businessman who revolutionized the manufacturing of aluminum cans through his processes of modular engineering. He has a wonderful family and enjoys spending a lot of time outdoors with his grandchildren.

Now at the age of 70, one might expect Roeslein to kick back, relax and retire in comfort but instead he is just getting started in the pursuit of his next goal – restoring 30-million acres of native grass in 30 years.

Roeslein’s new company, Roeslein Alternative Energy, has three areas of focus: energy production, ecological services and wildlife. Roeslein has found a way to benefit all three with a market-based solution to improve our environment while producing a renewable energy source from animal waste blended with native grasses.

Through a process called anaerobic digestion, Roeslein is able to produce compressed natural gas (CNG) from gases emitted from the mixture of manure and native grass. Not only does this process create renewable energy it eliminates odor and emissions from waste that otherwise would enter our air. Numerous ecological benefits for our landscape and wildlife also occur. The process certainly helps fight climate change.

“If we would plant 100 million acres of cover crops and 30 million acres of native grasses and forbes on marginal land, we could sequester over 150 million tons of carbon. More importantly, we could produce over 300 million gallons of CNG that would displace the pollution from fossil fuels. If we did this globally, we could reverse the effects of human-caused pollution in my lifetime,” Roeslein said.

A concentrated animal feeding operation, referred to as a CAFO, has more than 1,000 animal units. An animal unit is equivalent to 1,000 pounds live weight. The number of animals held in one location is often staggering, with some hog operations holding over 10,000 animals. These animals are kept more than 45 days in the enclosed feed operations. An immense amount of manure is generated from these operations.

CAFOs are controversial to say the least. It seems no one wants one in their backyard, yet most people love bacon and pork chops. There is certainly a dilemma. Fights continue to take place across the Midwest over the allowance of CAFOs. Smithfield Hog Production operates large CAFOs, but they are working hard to find and implement more environmentally friendly practices. To do so, they have partnered with Roeslein Alternative Energy.

Michael Rainwater is the general manager of Smithfield Hog Production. He said, “Smithfield is the largest pork producer in the United States, has a global presence and is really committed to this. We believe there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. Sustainability is not something we talk about. It’s something we do. We have to sustain the environment because we don’t just want to be in business for the next five years, we want to be in business for the next hundred and beyond.”

All of those hogs produce a lot of manure. In most instances the waste is moved to lagoons where gases are released into the air. The remaining affluent is spread out on land. Smithfield Hog Production spreads 750 million gallons per year. Enter Roeslein Alternative Energy, who mixes native grasses into the manure, spreads tarps over the lagoons, captures the gases, then through anaerobic digestion refines the gases into CNG.  

Native grass is key to Roeslein’s mission. In partnership with Smithfield Hog Production and the Environmental Defense Fund, Roeslein recently convened a conference to discuss the future of responsible land management.

A focus was placed on providing market-based solutions that significantly improve water quality, soil erosion, nutrient losses, carbon sequestration, and soil health.

There are four principle practices involved in the project: 1. Convert highly erodible land to native prairie instead of row crops. 2. Institute cover crop programs on agricultural land. 3. Install riparian barriers at riverbanks. 4. Plant contour native grass buffer strips to absorb fertilizer, rainfall and soil runoff.

One very important key to this, is the farmers are not expected to do this only out of the goodness of their heart or solely because of concern for the environment. Roeslein is creating a market-based approach where the grasses will be a crop, bought by the ton.

“When you look at the complexity of agriculture and the complexity of what happens on a landscape, not in my lifetime could I learn everything you need to know to make every right decision. But I don’t want to leave a legacy of another false start or potentially put farmers in a situation where they are going down a pathway that is a dead end,” Roeslein said.

Rudi Roeslein has created a system that benefits both climate change and CAFOs. His plan to restore native grasses, through a market-based approach, will provide all of us cleaner air, healthier soil and purer water.

To learn more about Roeslein Alternative Energy and to watch the video of the Grand River helicopter tour, visit

See you down the trail…

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