Imagine while feeding cows you hear the whirling of a helicopter as it passes over your farm. But this isn't just any helicopter flying over; this one is there to check your lagoons and watch for runoff.
For dairy producers in the Texas county of Erath, which ranks 12th in the nation in milk production, this is the type of harassment they have dealt with for almost a year.
"I'm not necessarily proud of what we've done to protect ourselves so far," says Donald Dejong, owner of Rising Sun Dairy, a 2,000-cow facility near Dublin, Texas, in Erath county. "We've been in defensive mode, and defense is very expensive. We really need to be in a proactive stance."
The situation that happened in Texas could happen anywhere. That is why you and other dairy producers in your state should work together to be proactive about nutrient management and form an emergency response team.
"Producers need to understand they have a higher responsibility than the average person because of the concentration of animals, and that society's tolerances for what used to be normal are no longer going to be accepted," he says. "Either we make our decisions on our timeline, or they are going to force it on their timeline. It will probably be more costly if we don't start taking a proactive stance to find a sensible solution."
Build a defense
The controversy in Texas stems from pollution of the North Bosque River that runs into Lake Waco, a source of drinking water for the city of Waco. City officials contend that large dairies in the area release excessive amounts of manure runoff which contain high amounts of phosphorus. That phosphorus causes algae blooms, leading to odor and taste problems in the drinking water from the lake.
Dairy producers in the area say that the water in Waco has always tasted bad and that Lake Waco has a history of poor water quality due to being built too shallow in the 1960s. They say that city officials are looking for a scapegoat and are targeting dairy operations. According to Alan VanderHorst, owner of VanderHorst Dairy in Erath county, the city of Waco has started an aggressive anti-dairy campaign, including helicopter surveillance of dairies about every two weeks, legal challenges to dairy permits; and lobbyists in the state capital promoting anti-dairy legislation.
The anti-dairy campaign caught local dairy producers off guard. They were not prepared for the increased scrutiny of their nutrient management systems and did not have the records in place to prove the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) wrong. The Texas Association of Dairyman also did not have the funds or manpower to take on a city the size of Waco, and the TNRCC, which has since halted dairy expansion permits in the area.
Area producers found that they needed to fight back by working together and forming the Coalition for Affordable Local Milk (CALM).
"The organization was formed with the single purpose of dealing with environmental issues, both from a legal and scientific standpoint," says VanderHorst. CALM allows milk co-ops in the area to charge producers a mandatory assessment of 0.5 cents per hundredweight. That money goes to pay lawyers for defending producers and also to send lobbyists to the state capital to fight negative dairy legislation.
"I think this has been a wake-up call for a lot of producers that this issue is not going away - not only in this area, but other areas as well," says VanderHorst.
While the Texas situation seems extreme, it is becoming more common for confined animal feeding operations to be the target for water quality and odor issues. And, as the Environmental Protection Agency continues work on new CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) guidelines, more dairies will come under greater scrutiny. EPA is currently working on new regulations defining CAFOs and may soon require dairies with 350 mature dairy cows to have a nutrient management plan. This may seem like an annoyance, but it could protect your dairy when water and soil quality issues arise.
"As an industry, the discussions are, 'Do we move to self-policing or self-certification of facilities to give us another layer of protection?'" says Dejong. "The regulatory community doesn't have the resources or the manpower to do an adequate job, so the industry is going to have to do it itself, which isn't popular with many people."
The issue of self-policing and the development of nutrient management plans creates some controversy. In Missouri, smaller dairy producers are concerned about the constantly changing regulations in terms of nutrient management and the cost of developing nutrient management plans.
"Producers in this state want to know what a nutrient management plan is going to cost," says David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association. "And, just because it fits the regulations we have on the books today, doesn't mean it is going to fit the regulations that will go on the books tomorrow or next year or 10 years down the road."
He feels state governments should offer assistance to producers in developing nutrient management plans and improving their manure management facilities. "A Missouri dairy producer who milks around 200 cows wants to double the size of his operation," says Drennan. "He's been told he'll need a new manure management system put in, and the estimated cost of that is $100,000. This doesn't make him a nickel. His concern is not only the cost, but also how long is that good for before new regulations are put in place. My concern is that these issues will force more producers to exit the business."
Push for prevention
Prevention is much cheaper than defense. Some states began preparing for tighter nutrient management regulations years ago and have taken the proactive stance to prevent expensive lawsuits and legislation.
One model program is the Idaho Dairy Pollution Prevention Initiative. It began in 1995 after it was determined that approximately 25 percent of Idaho dairies were discharging untreated animal and dairy nutrients into ditches and waterways. Prior to this time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality were the sole regulators. These groups, however, did not have the manpower or resources to inspect all dairies and were not able to control the pollution problems; therefore, only 5 percent of dairies were inspected each year.
This led dairy producers and other industry groups to come together to develop the pollution prevention initiative. "Several people within the industry realized that there were problems out there, and we needed to find a common-sense solution to resolve those," says Marv Patten, chief of Idaho State Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Dairy and Eggs. Since the agriculture department regularly inspected milk sanitation at dairies, they were the group with the manpower to inspect manure facilities. Once trained, state inspectors also were given the authority for milk license revocation and suspension as an enforcement tool.
According to Patten, dairies are now inspected on average 2.5 times per year. He adds that some dairies are inspected more often, while some are visited less, depending on problems found. Discharges from dairies are down from 25 percent several years ago to 0.001 percent now. The effectiveness of the program recently led to its renewal for another five years.
In addition to inspections, Idaho requires all dairies to have nutrient management plans. The combination of regular inspections and nutrient management plans are intended to catch problems immediately and prevent fines for dairy producers.
In Wisconsin, which has some of the toughest groundwater and surface water regulations in the nation, nutrient management plans are expected for permits. John Vrieze, co-owner of Emerald Dairy and Baldwin Dairy near Baldwin, Wis., works hard to keep his facilities environmentally friendly. Vrieze installed airtight lagoon covers on his lagoons to eliminate odors, and he sends the manure out to the fields through a drag hose system that instantly injects the manure 6 inches under ground. That is for odor control as well as surface runoff control. By injecting the manure under the soil surface, runoff is reduced. That's important in a state with abundant rain and a tremendous amount of lakes and streams.
Build public relations
"We need to demonstrate to the public that we are operating in an environmentally friendly way, that we're not affecting anyone's water or quality of life," that's the challenge Dejong sees for the dairy industry. "Milk itself had a great image and people like black-and-white cows. We just need to go out and talk about image building. We keep encouraging DMI and our checkoff dollars to go toward image building. That is how we're going to get perceptions turned around."
As a dairy producer and businessman, Vrieze has long been a proponent of improving public perception by opening his doors to visitors. He's proud of the accomplishments of his dairy and want those that live around him to know about it. "When I compare myself to let's say 15 years ago when I was milking only 60 cows, I'm doing a significantly better job in keeping those nutrients where they belong," says Vrieze. "Now I treat those nutrients as an asset. Back 15 years ago, it was a necessary evil and my manure management plan at that time was dictated by the weather. It was more of a waste product, but now we're really trying to handle it in an environmentally safe way."
For more information
For more information on EPA's proposed CAFO regulations, visit: http://cfpub1.epa.gov/npdes/home.cfm?program_id=7
For more information on Idaho's Dairy Pollution Prevention Initiative, visit: http://www.agri.state.id.us/dairy/dairy.html