Saturday, December 12, 2009

How much cow manure is enough?

Hi everyone,

Wisconsin has struggled to protect it's small family farms from the kind of industrial dairy and farming operations that would (will) put them out of business, but when people show up with $60 million, zoning always seems to bend -- in this case, in the direction of damaging the environment both above and below the ground.

Saturday's column.

How much cow manure is enough?

Bigger isn’t always better.

You may have caught wind of the expansion under way at the Rosendale Dairy up in Fond du Lac county. The winds of change are blowing, and they smell terrible. Rosendale is expanding its dairy operations to 8,000 cows, an expansion that makes Rosendale the largest concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in the state.

The bad smell starts with a misrepresentation. When you hear the word dairy, don’t you think of small farms with lush fields of alfalfa and tidy milking stalls where each farmer knows each cow? Me, too. Don’t be misled: Rosendale Dairy isn’t a farm, it’s a $60 million factory. Here’s the real poop.

Any time a farm goes over 700 cows, it has to get a permit and meet a set of state Department of Natural Resources guidelines for manure management. If standing downwind from 700 cows sounds rough, imagine 8,000. That many cows produce about 92 million gallons of manure every year. This works out to 12,298,611 cubic feet, enough manure to cover a typical football field to a depth of 213.5 feet. Imagine Lambeau Field filled with cow manure to the height of a 20-story building. More simply, according to the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union, Rosendale will produce as much raw sewage as the city of Green Bay – except cow manure doesn’t go through a processing plant before being discharged into the environment. The CAFO plans to to spread it over 5,631 acres of local cropland; that’s 16,338 gallons per acre per year. The smell isn’t the only impending nightmare for people in that part of the state. The potential run-off pollution and groundwater contamination are enough to make you give up cheese curds.

There are two tricks to spreading manure without contaminating the ground water. The first, of course, is to spread it on ground that isn't leaky -- that won't let the poop into the ground water.

Strike one!

What kind of ground is underneath this 16,338 gallons of manure per acre per year? The report says “thin sediments overlying dolomite.” Translated into technical English this means: Doh!. Dolomite is typically so full of cracks that it might as well have pipes running directly into the groundwater. The scientifically sedate language of the report states: “Groundwater flow in the dolomite is via fractures and bedding planes with very little attenuation of contaminants.” “Very little attenuation” means the poop washes directly into the aquifer without much filtration. Next stop? Your faucet.

The second trick is proper monitoring – you need to keep track of whether dumping this much manure is contaminating the groundwater so you can stop before too many people are affected – and here the regulations are toothless.

Strike two!

The state permit requires only self-monitoring. Rosendale Dairy, Inc. is simply asked to “report periods of non-compliance.” In fact, no groundwater monitoring is planned at the site at all and, even though the report says the site falls within state guidelines, the DNR recommends people in the vicinity have their wells periodically inspected. There's a comfort.

In a final irony, one that only state bureaucracies mixed with corporate lobbyists could produce, Rosendale will have to provide portable toilets for their human employees -- since the county does not issue permits for either holding tanks or mound systems on sites like this one. Ninety-two million gallons of cow manure pumped out over a geology likely to contaminate the ground water? No problem. Sewage from the 70 humans slated to work at this factory? "You'll need to bring in port-a-pottys. We wouldn't want to pollute anything."

More seriously, despite DNR optimism, people have good reason to be nervous. CAFO water quality management has some lousy precedents in other parts of the United States and, even in other parts of Wisconsin. In New Mexico, their Environment Department reports that fully two-thirds of its 150 dairies are contaminating local groundwater as a result of leaky containment ponds or because they’re spreading the manure too heavily on local fields. In Morrison (south of Green Bay in Brown County), over 100 wells were polluted within a few months of the first CAFOs opening there. Meanwhile, back in Fond du Lac County, Rosendale has already been caught spreading manure too close to established wells, in violation of their permit.

Something smells in Fond du Lac County. It’s the smell of Wisconsin’s family farmers drowning in... -- in industrial agriculture.

Strike three?

You make the call.

* * *

A note of passage:

Alderman Terry Vrana announced he’d be leaving office this week. Mr. Vrana was my alderman and, even though I found myself at the other end of the political spectrum on nearly every issue, I remained – despite everything else – indebted to Mr. Vrana on two counts: his military service in Vietnam and his stinginess with the taxpayers’ money. For this we owe Mr. Vrana an abiding respect and our thanks for his service to this community.

One final and compelling detail is that CAFOs pay about $250 for their waste management permits, but that the state has already spent over $100,000 on the process -- another example of working taxpayers subsidizing investment bankers.

For more fascinating reading, check out the environmental impact study.



kevin scheunemann said...


This proves my point about the DNR. They do precious little to protect the environment on real environmental issues.

The DNR is still letting the human poop spigot flow wide open with MMSD, which still dwarfs this farm operation output.

But the DNR is concerned about having port-a-pottys on the farm, while ignoring the cow poop spigot and the MMSD poop spigot.

The DNR is not at all about environmental protection...that is your first assumption problem.

Mpeterson said...

So you didn't read the EIS or even glance over the degree to which the legislation is written so as to allow industrial scale pollution while imposing sanctions on smaller businesses and regular people?


DanBack said...

Kevin doesn't need to read things in order to have opinions about them. Reading is for elitists.

Anonymous said...

You are a complete idiot - UW-Washington County should be ashamed for hiring you. Somebody that teaches should be able to get the facts right.

Anonymous said...

It's not even that the mega farms are producing poop too potent for their lands' limitations, the tremendous water use strains the business areas' natural water production rate and lowers the water table for all.

The animal machine: Why even truck the beasts to a processing plant? Just attach it just off the milk parlor: "Sorry, Bessy, err, #90,012. You're milk production is down 10%. Take the door on the left."

If mad cow evolves and comes back in full force, these mega-plants will provide some interesting news.

kevin scheunemann said...


Its not about the legislation. Its about the bureaucratic enforcement mechanism and bureaucratic enforcement priorities.

You can egghead the legislation all you want...the DNR is an environmental joke.

This is not about my alleged illiteracy,(although I'm sure you would like it to be) this is about the impractical application of government accountability and priorities.

Leave the Milwaukee poop spigot wide open into the lake, but punish a commmunity producing clean water....

That's the DNR problem.

Mpeterson said...

Anonymous: I got the facts wrong?? If that's the case please let me know what they are and I'll apologize in next week's column.

Kevin, so, again, you obviously haven't actually looked.

Kevin scheunemann said...


I have looked.

But the issue still is: even if the legislation is corrected to compensate for this issue...the DNR is still a joke in what they pay attention to!

That is political reality!

The DNR doesn't care about where the poop spigots are wide open. The DNR only cares about its little fiefdoms.

Mpeterson said...

Oh stop it.

Political reality is that the DNR is following Wisconsin State statutes. Are you under the impression that the legislature doesn't write the laws?

kevin scheunemann said...


Its against state statues for MMSD to let the poop spigot fly wide open into the lake.

But every time it rains...the DNR tolerates the billions of gallons of poop flowing into the lake...for years now.

Where is your outrage for MMSD? The MMSD poop operation is 100 times worse than this Fon Du Lac farm in aggregate.

What has the DNR done? Nothing. It maybe puts out an incredulous press release once in a while, but the poop keeps flowing onto the beach.

The minute Kewaskum has to dump 500,000 gallons...once in 100 years, during the 500 year flood...resulting directly from a DNR mandated construction project in progress, everyone in Kewaskum has to pay $600/year to put in a new sewer plant....from a sewrer dump the DNR caused!!!!!

So you should stop it. The DNR is run by incompetent boobs, and the sooner you admit it, the better off we will all be.