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WisBiz In Depth: Wintertime manure spreading under scrutiny

By Gregg Hoffmann

The farming practice of spreading manure on frozen land, especially liquid manure near waterways, is under attack after several incidents of fish kills in recent months.

In early March, rapid manure runoff brought on by warm temperatures led to a significant fish kill at Jersey Valley Lake between Cashton and Westby, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources official said.

Dave Vetrano, DNR fisheries supervisor in La Crosse, said an investigation indicates numerous instances of manure being spread on fields coupled with warming temperatures caused a runoff of the manure. The manure ran into the lake and caused the oxygen level in the water to drop below the amount needed by fish to survive.

Other incidents have included fish kills on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette and Iowa counties and a tributary, Otter Creek.

Manure was also blamed for a major fish kill on Willow and Smyth Hollow creeks in Richland County. Willow Creek was ranked as one of the top five trout streams in the area.

The DNR referred the cases to the attorney general's office for violation of state water pollution laws. Gordon Stevenson, who leads the DNR runoff management section, called the past winter the "worst in 20 years" of working with the problem.

Farmers are allowed to spread manure on farm fields in winter, but not in a manner in which it would wash into nearby waterways. Farming lobbies have argued that most farmers are very careful when spreading manure, and that such practices are necessary to reduce buildups in holding ponds and tanks on farms.

But, conservationists and others argue that the winter-spreading cannot be controlled during times of rapid temperature changes. Many feel the practice should be halted or more closely monitored.

Some point out that the potential harm does not stop with fish. Winter spreading is believed to have led to the contamination of private drinking water wells in Dodge County, and the runoff of 480,000 gallons of manure into a tributary to Lake Mendota in Dane County.

"We've had far too many instances in recent months of winter land spreading that has resulted in environmental damage and farmers facing enforcement action and restitution," said Stevenson. "Spreading liquid manure on land that is snow covered or frozen is a bad idea. It may be technically legal, but that does not remove the risk a farmer might face if their activities cause environmental damages."

A manure runoff event is a major concern, even if it doesn't contaminate wells or kill fish due to a decrease in available oxygen or ammonia toxicity, Stevenson said. Such events can damage property and carry significant loads of pollutants into lakes and streams that can have a long-term impact on water quality. In addition, farmers lose valuable nutrients when manure runs off fields before it can be used by growing crops, he said.

Kickapoo Groups Active

Groups in the Kickapoo Valley are taking a rather aggressive approach in making sure officials follow up on the problem at Jersey Valley Lake. Roger Widner of the West Fork Sportsmen’s Club said the water quality downstream from the lake and in area wells should be closely monitored.

Widner's group has done a great deal of work in restoring the west fork of the Kickapoo into a well-known trout stream. Jersey Valley Lake is the headwaters of that stream.

"The fish kill is bad enough, but we're just not talking fish here," Widner said. Widner said a bible camp and some homes with private wells are near the lake. He emphasized that he wants to see the issue stay in the forefront of discussion rather than being forgotten as the weather changes.

The Kickapoo Agency Collaboration Group is a consortium of groups that has sponsored the regular testing for bacteria on the Kickapoo River as one way of assessing the collective health of the watershed. The group is composed of local agency personnel, area organizations and concerned citizens active in the Kickapoo River Watershed and is coordinated by the Valley Stewardship Network. The group issued a press release about the Jersey Valley problem. An excerpt follows:

Landowners, and in particular agricultural producers, should be aware of the four Manure Management Prohibitions from the Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 151.08. The following "four prohibitions" became effective October of 2002. They are:
(1) A livestock operation shall have no overflow of manure storage facilities.
(2) A livestock operation shall have no unconfined manure pile in a water quality management area [defined as 300 feet from a river or stream or 1000 feet from a lake or pond.]
(3) A livestock operation shall have no direct runoff from a feedlot or stored manure into the waters of the state.
(4) A livestock operation may not allow unlimited access by livestock to waters of the state in a location where high concentrations of animals prevent the maintenance of adequate sod or self-sustaining vegetative cover.

Ag operators in violation of the four prohibitions may apply for cost share monies from the state. Available at a 70% cost share, or 90% if need is shown, the funds can be used to remedy or prevent such occurrences.

However, spreading of manure on frozen or snow covered ground is NOT listed as a prohibition. The warm weather we experienced on March 6, 2005 caused manure spread on frozen and snow covered fields to melt and runoff the land. Jersey Valley Lake in Vernon County received enough manure during the thaw to cause a fish kill. The biological decomposition process of manure robbed the lake of oxygen, effectively suffocating the fish. According to the DNR, it may take 10 years for the fish population to recover. Alternatives to spreading manure on frozen ground that meets the needs of watershed farmers and protects our water resources must be found.

The recent spring thaw brought numerous reports of manure washing into our streams. And spring has hardly begun. The Kickapoo Agency Collaboration Group is focusing on finding a way to work with landowners to improve the situation and restore the high quality of water found in the region.

DATCP and DNR Involved

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is in the process of revising standards on the winter spreading of manure. DATCP held hearings through March and will take public input until Friday, April 8.

According to an open e-mail sent by Jim Amrhein, a watershed planner and biologist for the DNR in the South Central Region of the state, the new regulations under consideration are more restrictive than the current standards, but are "not enough to protect our water resources."

Amrhein suggested several talking points to be considered:

  • A thoughtful re-assessment of the rules (especially manure management) can result in significant improvements for the agricultural community as well as our surface and groundwater resources.

  • The standard, as written with regards to distance from navigable lakes and streams, application rates, and slope do not adequately minimize the risk of nutrient delivery to our surface or groundwater.

  • We fully support a strong and viable agricultural community, but recognize that the face of agriculture is changing toward larger operations generating more waste

  • As profitability is leading to farm expansions, DATCP will play an essential role in steering behavior away from practices which pose a risk to the environment and toward a new constructive model of how farms manage manure.

  • Any farms covered under proposed ATCP 51 (locally regulated new and expanding farms over 500 animal units) should be required to have adequate storage (6 months) and prohibited from spreading liquid manure on frozen and snow covered ground.

Amrhein also wrote that calls for complete prohibition of winter spreading of manure can too easily by dismissed as "knee jerk" and will not be effective.

The DNR has only recently started systematically recording data on fish kills, including those caused by manure-related incidents. Thirty fish kills were reported to DNR in 2004 and causes have been established in about half of the cases. Of the known causes, manure-related incidents were determined to be the cause of six fish kills, and suspected in a seventh fish kill.

Stevenson said weather patterns that in recent years have brought mild winter weather with periodic warm-ups and rain, increasing the risk of manure applied to frozen fields running off into lakes and rivers.

More farmers are managing manure as a liquid rather than a solid without building the storage they need to avoid applying during times of the year when the risk of runoff is high, Stevenson said. The liquid form more easily runs off.

"Twenty years ago, the typical dairy farm had 40-60 cows, had a lot of bedding and solid manure," Stevenson said. "It was harder to displace. Today, more conventional dairying uses a lot of flush water. It’s cheaper and easier to pump than to spread as a solid."

Stevenson said when you combine the liquid manure with the "freeze and thaw" patterns of recent winters, "you have problems."

"We had a couple days of 50 degrees this winter, and the phones here were ringing off the hooks," Stevenson said.

Most of the manure-related incidents in 2004 and so far in 2005 are caused by smaller farms, those not required to get a water quality permit that spells out standards for how the operation will handle, store and spread manure.

Of the more than 40,000 livestock operations in Wisconsin, 131 are required under current federal rules to have such a water quality permit because they have more than 1,000 animal units. An animal unit reflects the amount of waste generated, and equals 1,000 beef cattle, 710 dairy cows, 200,000 broiler chickens or 2,500 pigs.

Almost all of the sources contacted for this column agreed that a cooperative effort between agriculture and conservationists is needed to address the problem.

Stevenson said farmers are "really not villains" in the runoff problem, and added that there are economic and cultural factors that contribute to it. In most cases, the problems are not caused by any intentional misapplication of the manure, he added.

"DATCP, other state agencies, the agricultural and agribusiness community, and environmental groups should all work together to arrive at approaches to help avoid these situations in the future," Amrhein wrote in his open e-mail.

"Challenge them to think outside the box – toward treating agricultural waste in the same vein as human waste – to suggest innovative approaches that provide an economically viable alternative to spreading manure on land during unfavorable conditions."


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