Just before Christmas, an area dairyman I’ve known for some time told me that he had sold his dairy cows; the low milk prices and mounting costs of operations had made it impossible for him to continue, he said with a rueful smile.
His exit from milk production maybe didn’t show up as one of the 800 Wisconsin dairy farms that went out of business in 2019; his farm has other enterprises that will continue so he didn’t want me to identify him.
But his account of the sale of his herd put a face, and not a happy one, on the story of the painful condition of dairying in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country because of the milk surplus and resulting low dairy prices.
And if you are wondering why there is such a surplus of milk, the Arizona Republic newspaper ran an in-depth study late in December that gives us a clue.
Seven giant farms “are draining Arizona’s aquifers,” the paper reported, one of them a huge dairy CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) that plans to increase its number of cattle in Arizona to 150,000.
The same company, Riverside LLC, based in Morris, Minn., has 60,000 milk cows in western Minnesota in nine dairies and is building more, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The Arizona operation’s water (a cow needs about 20 gallons or more a day) is supplied by 420 wells. Ninety of those wells are deeper than 1,000 feet and the deepest at nearly 2,500 feet, according to the Republic’s report.
Wisconsin also has its share of big operations tapping groundwater with high-capacity wells, although not to that scale.
Still, one of the largest dairies, the New Chester Dairy, a 9,000-cow operation in Adams County, will produce in addition to milk some 110,864,079 gallons of manure and process wastewater a year to be spread over 49,000 acres, most of it under leases or other agreements with other farmers in the county, according to its state permit. That’s more than 75 percent of the cropland in Adams County.
And one more “before Christmas” observation: On a drive home from a visit with family in Shawano, Gretchen and I saw big equipment at a dairy operation field spreading manure on snow just across the highway from the Yellow River and just upstream of Lake Dexter, a popular lake for fishing in Wood County.
Farmers are allowed to spread on frozen ground under certain conditions, but the regulations are complicated and enforcement has been lax, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series of stories about the state’s dairy crisis. Spreading manure that close to a river and upstream of a lake did not strike us as sensible whatever the regulation allowed.
So, these three holiday observations prompted my rethinking on the dairy industry that has served the state so well.
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In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court may decide soon on whether the Department of Natural Resources can continue to authorize new high-capacity wells when the cumulative effect harms the wells of neighbors and depletes waters of lakes and streams. Approvals of the big dairy wells have been contentious.
In some areas of Wisconsin with thin topsoil and porous bedrock, manure spreading contributes to contamination in groundwater and in other areas runoff contributes to toxic algae blooms in surface water.
Although state government officials have promised action, there is little indication that it will come soon; the dairy industry wields political clout and it is resisting proposed changes in regulating manure or fertilizer use. The Republican-led Legislature refused a proposal by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to provide more funds for DNR surveillance of CAFO operations.
I confess here to some nostalgia about Wisconsin’s dairy history.
Gretchen’s family operated a dairy farm that had been in the family since the end of the Civil War. As a reporter, I visited dairy farms throughout the state and have observed for decades the contributions of dairying to the state’s economy and culture — a culture that included a rural landscape of independently owned farms whose families traded, banked, worshiped and participated in civic events in small towns across rural Wisconsin.
Tell me what sense is there in a model that is allowing such social disruption based on the free and copious use of the public’s precious water resources.
And how does it make sense to allow such concentrated pollutants to be spread untreated in huge quantities on the landscape? The Journal Sentinel put it this way: “The largest Wisconsin CAFOs — those with 6,000 cows — generate as much manure and urine as 252,000 people, on par with Madison. “
The American Public Health Association in November called for a moratorium on any new or expanded CAFOs. The association cited “a range of public health and ecological hazards, including large volumes of untreated animal waste, the release of environmental contaminants to air, water, and soil, and the generation and spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.”
Much has been made of the efficiency of large-scale operations that has spurred their rapid growth during the past decade.
But before we give up on the culture that has shaped rural Wisconsin, we should have some answers on whether those efficiencies of lower-cost operations in the big dairies will hold up under stricter regulation.
What will happen to costs of operation if their effluent must be treated before release into the environment, if the uncertainty of the availability of immigrant labor on which many of them depend continues, and if their water use is properly regulated?
I’m betting they won’t, and by then it will be too late to recover what has been such a vital part of the social and economic fabric of rural Wisconsin.