Milk and Manure in the Dairy State

  • Regulators in Wisconsin say, for the most part, their big dairy farms are doing a good job with manure management. They say most of their water quality problems come from smaller farms in the state - farms that are not monitored as closely. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

The dairy industry often uses images
of cows grazing in a green pasture.
But that’s not how most dairy farms
look these days. Instead of green
pastures, thousands of cows are penned
up in huge metal pole barns. The
mechanization of dairies makes for
cheaper milk at the grocery store.
But, in many places around the country,
it’s also meant a lot of pollution.
Mark Brush visited a place where they
say big dairies are doing it right:

Transcript

The dairy industry often uses images
of cows grazing in a green pasture.
But that’s not how most dairy farms
look these days. Instead of green
pastures, thousands of cows are penned
up in huge metal pole barns. The
mechanization of dairies makes for
cheaper milk at the grocery store.
But, in many places around the country,
it’s also meant a lot of pollution.
Mark Brush visited a place where they
say big dairies are doing it right:

(sound of a farm)

Tom Crave and his brothers run this dairy in central Wisconsin. Crave says, when they first started out, he and his brothers were single, they had 80 cows and a used car.

Now, they have around a 1,000 cows and families to look after. He says they had to get big to survive.

“It takes a lot of money to live. That’s what’s… that’s what’s driven this here. It’s just basic economics.”

It’s a theme farmers all over the country have been hearing for decades. Get big or get out. You can’t make money unless you grow.

The Crave Brothers milk their 1,000 cows three times a day. They use automated milking machines. And they turn that milk into cheese that they make across the street in their cheese factory.

But milk is not the only thing cows produce. These farms deal with millions of gallons of liquid manure.

Most farms store the manure in lagoons – basically huge pits of waste contained by earthen berms. Then, when these lagoons fill up, they spray or inject the liquid manure onto the ground as fertilizer for crops. It’s also the main way they have to get rid of all that waste.

Sometimes these big dairy farms have problems. Liquid manure runs off the crop land, contaminating rivers and lakes. And, in some cases, the earthen berms holding back the manure has leaked or given way, releasing a wave of manure, causing huge fish kills or polluting well water.

But regulators here say the Crave Brothers have been doing a good job taking care of their manure. As have most of the other big dairy farms in Wisconsin. That’s in part because these farms actively regulated in the state.

Gordon Stevenson is the Chief Runoff Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“It is not coming from these largest farms for the most part. The manure management on our 30,000 other smaller farms can be a good bit worse, and those people are not regulated.”

Dairy farms that have fewer than 700 milking cows usually are not regulated under the Clean Water Act until there’s a major problem. And some farms stay under 700 cows to avoid regulations.

“When we encounter environmental problems associated with one of these smaller farms, they can be offered cost share assistance. They’re largely voluntary programs.”

If Stevenson finds a smaller farm that’s polluting, he can offer them some state money to fix the problem. But, beyond that, he says there’s not much his office can do. As a result, some smaller farms pollute.

Jamie Saul is with Midwest Environmental Advocates. His group has represented people who were sickened from well water contaminated by manure. Saul says, there have been some problems with bigger farms in the state, but he admits the bigger challenge is how to control pollution coming from smaller, unregulated farms.

He says just offering them money to clean up is not good enough.

“We are the habit now of paying, and I think it’s pretty unique to the agricultural industry, that we pay them to reduce their pollution. Most other industries we don’t do that. We expect whatever industry it is to come into compliance with whatever standards are needed to protect the environment and public health.”

Saul says all states needs better policies to keep small farms from polluting. He says the regulations have to have that magic mix of stopping water pollution without putting too much burden on small farmers.


While Wisconsin regulators seem to be keeping an eye on their bigger farms, environmental activists say that’s not the case in other states. They say Clean Water Act rules are often not enforced against livestock farms – big or small – and that puts the environment and people’s health at risk.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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