A sunny summer morning along the banks of the Black River, but the foul water that greeted fishermen that day hardly evoked a sense of tranquility or cheer.  

Soon, reports of a large manure spill circulated through the news media. It was reported that 3 million gallons of liquid manure had spilled from a dairy farm, creating a toxic mess that got into the Black River and killed hundreds of thousands of fish.

The “big manure spill of 2005,” which involved a 3,500-cow dairy in Martinsburg, N.Y., made headlines and once again reminded the public that dairies can be the source of environmental problems if not managed properly.

You never know when you might encounter someone who remembers this or some other incident involving dairies. See the “talking points” (below) for responding to their concerns.

Mistakes do happen

It’s always better for the public to hear about the proactive steps being taken to protect the environment than to hear about the occasional mistakes that occur.  

  • On Aug. 12, 2005, the Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, N.Y., ran an article entitled, “Massive manure spill taints river,” in response to the incident mentioned above.
  • On March 8, 2005, The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., ran a front-page article entitled, “More manure spread even after fish killed.” It was one of several articles and editorials the newspaper carried that week about the dangers of spraying liquid manure on frozen farm fields.
  • On Nov. 20, 1996, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an article with the headline, “Dairies spread danger.” A photo showed liquid manure jetting out of an irrigation sprinkler, with Mount Rainier reigning majestically in the background. Besides pointing to environmental problems posed by dairies, the article claimed that certain state legislators were blocking control efforts.

Every now and then, the public receives these reminders from the news media. 

Acknowledge public concern

Yes, the public has a right to be concerned about dairies and possible pollution from those dairies, says Dennis Frame, co-director of the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms Program and an expert on environmental issues.

Agriculture is indeed a source of non-point pollution, he says. (“Point-source” pollution refers to any source of pollution that is discharged from a pipe; for instance, a pipe at a factory where the pollution can be traced to a specific outlet. “Non-point” would be pollution from other sources, such as surface-applied manure that runs off the land.)

Sediment and nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus can and do migrate off agricultural land — there’s no denying that. But it occurs, as well, with anything in nature, including woodlands and grasslands, Frame points out.

His organization, UW Discovery Farms, works with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor sediment and nutrient losses from nine farms in Wisconsin. It’s a voluntary program. The very fact that monitoring takes place at all — with farms contributing much of the funding and also volunteering their land — indicates to Frame that the dairy industry is concerned about the problem and wants to learn new ways to manage it.

There are other examples, including the willingness of many dairies to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on an “air consent agreement.” Signup for the study, designed to give the EPA a database for regulating air emissions, attracted 600 dairy farms last summer.

The industry does care about the environment. Unfortunately, there are a few bad actors who spoil it for everyone.

Information sources

  • A good educational tool, addressing a number of issues in addition to the environment, can be found at the Web site  www.dairyfarmingtoday.org  It addresses many of the concerns that socially conscious people have about farming, says David Pelzer, vice president of industry relations and communication at Dairy Management Inc., the organization that manages the dairy-checkoff program.

Talking points

Do dairies really smell?

  • Some dairies have an odor. It’s bound to happen anytime you have animals in one place. Dairy farming is an agrarian business and there are odors associated with agriculture.
  • We are as concerned about air quality as our neighbors. After all, we live there, too.
  • Dairy producers want to be good neighbors. Many of them go out of their way to accommodate the people who live near them. For instance, if the neighbors are planning a party or event, farms will try to be respectful of that and limit activities that involve the hauling or spreading of manure.  
  • Dairy farmers do their best to control odor through technology and good management.

What do farms do with all of that manure?

  • Some farms store it for later use. Others apply it to the land on a daily basis. One way or another, it is put to good use — usually as a fertilizer source for crops.  Think of it as “recycling.”
  • By using manure nutrients for crops, farmers can reduce the amount of commercial fertilizer they need to buy, which, in turn, reduces the amount of natural resources consumed. This is especially important now given the high cost of natural gas.
  • Farms spread the manure according to a nutrient-management plan. The plan takes into account the type of soils found on the farm, the terrain of the fields, and the amount of nutrients needed by the crops. 
  • Whenever a new farm goes in, or an existing farm adds more cows, the local government agencies make sure that the farm can handle its manure in an environmentally responsible way.
  • Farms must pay severe penalties if any of the manure makes its way into lakes or streams. Some producers have gone to jail.

I’ve heard that cows contribute more to the smog problem in California than cars. Is that true?

  • Dairies are responsible for some air emissions, but certainly not as many as the environmental activists claim. That has been supported by scientists from the state’s universities.
  • Using common sense, we have to ask the question, “Would you rather be trapped in your garage with a running diesel truck or a dairy cow?”