Factory Farms – Water Pollution

  • Hog manure being injected into the ground and tilled under. The manure fertilizes the crops, but if too much is applied it can foul up waterways. (Photo by Mark Brush)


(sound of giant fans)

About a thousand cows are in this building, eating, lolling around, and waiting for the next round of milking.

There’s a sharp smell of manure hanging in the air. Big fans are blowing to keep the cows cool, and to keep the air circulated.

Stephan Vander Hoff runs this dairy along with his siblings. He says these big farms are good for consumers:

“We’ve got something here and we’ve been able to do it in such a way that we’re still producing at the same cost that we were fifteen years ago. It costs more now for a gallon of gas than a gallon of milk. And so, that’s something to be proud of.”

Vander Hoff’s dairy produces enough milk to fill seven tanker trucks everyday. They also produce a lot of waste. The cows in this building are penned in by metal gates. They can’t go outside. So the manure and urine that would normally pile up is washed away by water.

Tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater are sent to big lagoons outside. Eventually, the liquefied manure is spread onto nearby farm fields. It’s a challenge for these farmers to deal with these large pools of liquid manure. The farther they have to haul it, the more expensive it is for them. Almost all of them put the manure onto farm fields.

It’s good for the crops if it’s done right, but if too much manure is put on the land, it can wash into streams and creeks. In fact, this dairy has been cited by the state of Michigan for letting their manure get into nearby waterways.

(sound of roadway)

Lynn Henning keeps a close eye on Vander Hoff’s dairy.

(car door opening and closing)

She steps from her car with a digital camera, and a device that measures water quality.

(sound of crickets and walking through the brush)

She weaves her way down to the edge of this creek.

“This is the area where we got E. coli at 7.5 million.”

High E. coli levels mean the water might be polluted with dangerous pathogens. Lynn Henning is testing the creek today because she saw farmers spreading liquid manure on the fields yesterday. Henning is a farmer turned environmental activist. She works for the Sierra Club and drives all over the state taking water samples and pictures near big livestock farms.

Henning says she got involved because more of these large animal farms expanded into her community. She says when the farmers spread the liquid manure, it can make life in the country pretty difficult:

“The odor is horrendous when they’re applying –we have fly infestations–we have hydrogen sulfide in the air that nobody knows is there because you can’t always smell it. We have to live in fear that every glass of water that we drink is going to be contaminated at some point.”

Water contamination from manure is a big concern. The liquid manure can contain nasty pathogens and bacteria.

Joan Rose is a microbiologist at Michigan State University.

“If animal wastes are not treated properly and we have large concentrations of animal waste going onto land and then via rainfall or other runoff events entering into our water – there can be outbreaks associated with this practice.”

Rose tested water in this area and found high levels of cryptosporidium that likely came from cattle. Cryptosporidium is the same bug that killed people in Milwaukee back in 1993. Rose says livestock farmers need to think more about keeping these pathogens out of the water. But she says they don’t get much support from the state and researchers on how best to do that.

For now, the farmers have to come up with their own solutions.

(sound of treatment plant)

Three years ago, the state of Michigan sued Stephen Vander Hoff’s dairy for multiple waste violations. The Vander Hoff’s settled the case with the state and agreed to build a one million dollar treatment system. But Vander Hoff isn’t convinced that his dairy was at fault, and thinks that people’s concerns over his dairy are overblown:

“If we had an issue or had done something wrong the first people that want to correct it is us. We live in this area. So why would we do anything to harm it?”

Vander Hoff is upbeat about the new treatment system. He says it will save the dairy money in the long run.

The Sierra Club’s Lynn Henning says she’s skeptical of the new treatment plant. She’ll continue to take water samples and put pressure on these farms to handle their manure better. In the end, she doesn’t think these big farms have a place in agriculture. She’d rather see farms go back to the old style of dairying, where the cows are allowed to graze, and the number of animals isn’t so concentrated.

But farm researchers say because consumers demand cheap prices, these large farms are here to stay and there will be more of them. Because of this, the experts say we can expect more conflicts in rural America.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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