The state of Wisconsin under governor Tony Evers has recognized that it has a problem with water quality and air quality. The state is moving forward to make improvements. Evers declared 2019 as the “Year of clean drinking water,” and has targeted the dairy industry as one of the sources of pollution problems. The state has proposed tighter regulations on how manure on dairies can be stored. Even though the regulations haven’t yet passed, the diary industry isn’t happy about it.
Proposed Manure Storage Regulations
According to WXOW and a recent story from the Associated Press, the dairy industry upset that new regulations over manure storage on factory farms might be on the way. Agriculture officials in the state are writing new standards for farms that will serve as templates for local ordinances, and it’s looking like they will be more restrictive.
Farms with more than 1,000 animals or more will have to place manure storage facilities at least 1,000 to 2,500 feet from their neighbors’ properties. The rule is designed to help minimize odors.
Dairy Industry Isn’t Happy
Many farm groups like the Dairy Business Association, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation held a news conference recently, and they all emphasized how detrimental the potential regulation could be to factory farms. They argue that it makes expansion nearly impossible and will push dairies out of Wisconsin.
“Year of Clean Drinking Water”
Todd Richmond of the Associated Press wrote a piece covering the proposed manure storage restrictions. He reports that this has been an ongoing project begun by Wisconsin governor Tony Evers. His administration has been taking steps to restrict manure storage as a way to minimize odors and water pollution. Ever since Evers declared 2019 as the “Year of clean drinking water” his administration has been working to provide tighter manure regulations for local governments to implement.
Last year the state Department of Natural Resources imposed restrictions on manure-spreading in 15 northeastern Wisconsin counties due to drinking water contamination.
A scope statement outlining the potential rule changes for the Southwestern part of the state was released in mid-September. It’s hoped that the restrictions will help improve water quality and pollution. The US Agricultural Research Service and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey released a study in August that has likely prompted the action. The study found that 32 of 35 wells tested in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties contained fecal matter from humans or livestock.
Jennifer Giegerich, a lobbyist for the League of Wisconsin Conservation Voters is pushing for changes.
“The current manure practices we have do not protect our drinking water,” Giegerich said. “Expanding these protections to areas of the state with nitrate contamination problems is necessary.”
The proposal is likely to run into opposition not only from the dairy industry, but also Republican lawmakers in the state. They currently control the state legislature. Farmers are an important GOP constituency and they’re currently facing all sorts of problems: the trade war, dropping milk prices, and increased numbers of factory farms. Almost 700 Wisconsin dairy farms closed last year and net cash farm income dropped 22% between 2012 and 2017 according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Needless to say, Wisconsin dairy farmers are struggling, and this proposed regulation in particular will only make things harder for them. There’s only so much land to spread manure. The new restrictions might force dairy farmers to rent or buy more land for spreading. Farmers may also begin injecting manure into the soil. This practice helps prevent runoff, but is costly because it requires special equipment.
Stakeholders will have many opportunities to share their opinions on the proposed restrictions. The Wisconsin DNR will hold their first of many public hearings in October.
Regulations Will Be Tough to Implement
Todd Richmond of the AP covered another part of the story that was published in the News Times. Richmond reports that Wisconsin Senator Steve Nass, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s rules committee, says that the department “bureaucrats” are ignoring the dairy industry’s concerns and will block the rules if they reach the committee in their current form.
Nass says that the proposed regulations are just too tough.
“It would be a terrible mistake for (the department) to formally submit their current version of rule changes to the Legislature,” Nass said. “Instead, the department should scrap their current process and begin anew, this time seeking to work cooperatively with the widest representation of Wisconsin’s agricultural community. However, if the agency prefers the route of confrontation, then that is what they will get from the Legislature and farmers of this state.”
The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance had dire predictions if the regulations were to be passed.
“If adopted unchanged, this revised rule would result in significant costs to operations that want to expand, resulting in a ‘chilling effect’ on livestock industry growth. Rather than grow in Wisconsin, producers will leave the state for more workable locations. Following the supply, meat and milk processors will move new investment opportunities to wherever that supply is.”
Regulations Applied by Local Governments
On the flip side, Scott Laeser, the water program director for environmental group Clean Wisconsin, says the regulations are “modest and long overdue.”
Just like the system is currently, new regulations wouldn’t be imposed on the farmers from the state. Local governments would have to apply them. According to Richmond’s article, new farms with more than 500 animals would have to store manure between 600 and 2,500 feet away from neighbor’s property lines. That distance could be reduced by use of anaerobic digesters or injecting manure into the ground.
It’s an extremely complicated situation. On the one hand, one can see the importance of clean water and air. It’s important for states to step in at times and make sure these kinds of problems are kept in check- for the benefit of all who reside in Wisconsin. On the other hand, there’s only so much that these dairy farms can take. It’s been an extremely challenging series of years for hundreds of dairies across the state. Regulations like these could push dairies out of the state for good. There has to be some sort of middle ground. Like Nass is suggesting, if the state could work together with the agricultural community, maybe the two sides could agree upon a more workable and practical solution that would benefit all.