I am not what some might define as well-traveled, but I have gotten around enough to know that Wisconsin is unique from the standpoint that no where else are so many people and dairy cows plopped down in one place to co-exist. It’s been that way for a long time; however, over the years we’ve reshuffled the deck a bit with larger but fewer farms and moved more people out into the rural areas to build new homes and remodel the old ones.
Do these changes predispose potential problems? Sure they do. Can solutions be found? Yes, unlike problems found in some other places (see earthquakes in California, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and the Cubs in Illinois).
A recent outbreak of contaminated private drinking wells in the Town of Byron with E. coli bacteria and high nitrate levels has again brought to light the fact that Mother Nature is in delicate balance, especially where karst topography (a.k.a “the ledge”) exists. It’s puzzling, however, that a number of high nitrate wells also showed up in the northern part of the township, where deep silt loam and clay soils exist. To everyone’s credit, there has been more effort made in finding solutions than in raising fingers (index or otherwise).
Often at the epicenter of concerns are not the cows, but rather the manure they produce. Twenty years ago, to get farmers to come to a meeting related to manure management required a free steak dinner as a part of the deal. Nutrient management plans didn’t exist. Times have changed because of both regulation and economic survival. Manure applications are more highly regulated today than ever, especially on large farms. Further, manure as a crop nutrient source is more valuable today than it’s ever been. Millions of dollars have been spent by both the government and farmers to handle, store, process, and apply manure in a manner that is environmentally sound, yet also economically feasible.
Are we where we need to be in regards to manure management? No, not even close. Like a lot of things, it takes money and time. Of course most of the calamities blamed on manure are really the result of poor decisions made by people, either knowingly or unknowingly. The right to farm is not synonymous with the right to pollute. Farm operators who knowingly make bad decisions with manure need to be fined and/or prosecuted. They simply project a poor image for the vast majority who invest much time, money, and thought into doing a good job.
Rural non-farm residents who complain about too much manure and too many cows sometimes fail to think about the alternative. Cows, being ruminants, require that a large part of their diet be forage crops. Perennial forage crops like alfalfa and pasture grasses do more to protect our land and water resources than manure has ever done or will do to hurt them. Without cows, fields are tilled more intensively and become vulnerable to soil nutrient loss. Purchased fertilizer inputs are simply substituted for manure nutrients. The solutions are never as easy as they may sometimes seem.
The University of Wisconsin and private industry have invested a great number of resources into manure handling research and product development. The ultimate goal in Wisconsin is to have a nutrient management plan written AND followed by every farm operation in the state. These plans make good business and economic sense. If followed, they may also protect farms from unwarranted litigation claims. Cows, crops, and people can coexist in rural areas if both farmers and rural non-farm residents understand each other’s concerns and realities.
Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County