BOISE, Idaho ― After being sued by an environmental group five years ago, the issue of air quality became front-and-center at DeRuyter Brothers Dairy in Outlook, Wash.

So, when a voluntary monitoring program began in the area, DeRuyter was one of 12 farms that signed up.

“It worked out really well,” Genny DeRuyter told those attending the Western Dairy Air Quality Symposium on Wednesday.

“I was startled when I finally got my report card (from the people who came out to the farm to evaluate best-management practices related to air quality),” she said. “We had a score in the mid-90s ― that’s a passing grade of ‘A.’”

The DeRuyters appreciated knowing they were doing the right thing after being caught off guard by the activist lawsuit ― a suit that was later dropped.

At Wednesday’s symposium, the monitoring program in Yakima County, Wash., in which the DeRuyters participated, was one of the solutions discussed.  

What distinguished the Yakima County program was the collaborative effort between dairy producers, scientists and air-quality regulators. Those groups got together and worked out a program where producers could learn how to mitigate air-quality issues without the threat of a regulatory hammer hanging over them. Likewise, the regulators learned more about the challenges facing dairy farmers.

As one regulator put it, he’s a mechanical engineer who started off not knowing anything about cow manure.

Several speakers at the symposium referenced software programs that model ammonia and other emissions from dairies and how those models can be a valuable educational tool.

Producers can plug different management scenarios into the model to see how those affect emissions, pointed out Bill Salas, president of Applied Geosciences, developer of the Manure-DNDC model.

A 3,400-cow dairy could potentially cut ammonia emissions by 50 percent, according to the simulation model, by lowering crude protein in the ration, flushing manure versus scraping it, manure injection versus surface application, and other do-able practices. 

The models have gotten more accurate over the years. In fact, estimates from the Manure-DNDC model were compared to actual emissions from five barns (using sensing devices), and there was a high correlation between the two.

Besides Manure-DNDC, there is DairyGEM, Integrated Farm System Model and several others that can be downloaded from the internet free-of-charge.

As the science of air emissions gets better, there will be less guesswork and ambiguity for producers. It takes the issue out of the realm of emotion, points out Kevin Abernathy, director of regulatory affairs for the Milk Producers Council, a California-based dairy farmer organization. Yet, environmental activists would rather keep it emotional, he added.

That goes back to a point made by Washington State dairy producer Genny DeRuyter in her presentation Wednesday.

She said the activist groups don’t like the idea of dairy farmers working with regulators to find solutions. “They would rather see us have our names splashed in the newspaper saying we are guilty of something.”