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Wisconsin Proud of their Agriculture and Environmental Management

June 20, 2014

Last week I appreciated how agriculture and environment work well together in the state of Wisconsin. When the value of agriculture and the value of the environment are both appreciated, everyone wins, and can be proud of their communities.

I had the privilege of visiting three large dairies, all of whom are required to operate with a Nutrient Management Plan, a state requirement which includes regular submissions, review and visits by Department of Natural Resources staff. Nutrient management plans follow both nitrogen and phosphorus, both of which have potentially harmful impacts on surface and groundwater. Plans are mandatory for farms having more than 1000 animal units (699 cows), but local governments may also require nutrient management planning for smaller farms. The primary reason for nutrient management planning is to protect ground and surface water quality.

There was scenery and farms in Wisconsin that reminded me of my days reading Hoard’s Dairyman on our farm in the mid 70s.

A Wisconsin dairy that I could almost recognize from 1975 issues of Hoard's Dairyman!

A Wisconsin dairy that I could almost recognize from 1975 issues of Hoard’s Dairyman!

Much has changed. Hoard’s Dairyman is printed in Spanish – as most of the staff taking care of the animals are Mexican. The vertical feed silos stand empty, and most manure is stored in earthen lagoons. There are a number of farms with anaerobic digesters, but the industry understands that anaerobic digesters don’t solve nutrient management challenges. They work well to reduce odor from manure, and may provide electricity for the farm. Contracts for green electricity are not as lucrative as they once were. An increasing number of farms that separate solids after digestion have realized that further drying or processing is necessary to reduce the risk of disease. I visited two dairies that have anaerobic digesters. Both dairies use the separated dairy solids for bedding the cattle, but only after processing through a triple pass natural gas dryer.

While there are promising technologies coming available to economically process manure into water and nutrients, we know that we are not there yet. Many organizations in the world have been trying to develop cost effective technology for many years. In Wisconsin, manure and digestate is applied to farm land surrounding the dairies. Pipes carrying manure for several miles from the large dairies is a common sight. There is enough cropland to sustainably utilize manure nutrients in Wisconsin, where most of the feed for the animals is locally produced.

Large dairies with 2000-4000 cows are now a common site in Wisconsin.

Large dairies with 2000-4000 cows are now a common site in Wisconsin.

There is security for the farmers knowing that their nutrient management plans are being actively being reviewed. There is less concern with trying to reduce costs by over applying manure to a smaller landbase, or to concentrate the applications to the fields close to home. As a result, there is an obvious pride within the communities, and a willingness for learning.

What can we learn from this for our agriculture in British Columbia? Mandatory nutrient management planning will provide the following benefits:

1. reduced risk of surface and ground water quality pollution from excess manure application

2. a sustainable context in which to evaluate the benefits of anaerobic digestion, instead of simply hoping that it will solve nutrient excesses on the farm.

3. allows creativity to optimize the value of the manure nutrients for crop production.

4. reduces societal cost and risk associated with groundwater quality and with fish in surface waters

5. sets a level playing field for the agricultural community so that economic benefit for the farmers is not correlated with greater environmental impact.

6. increases the pride in our community and in our agriculture/environment interface.

 

 

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