Contaminants in Whatcom groundwater aquifers can come from leaking septic tanks, fertilizer applications and many other sources yet dairy farm manure storage lagoons are often cited as primary. These lagoons are engineered structures that have been tested and modified to be more protective over time. There are 110 dairies in Whatcom County and about 300 manure storage lagoons, with only a suspected handful of them that are considered problematic and in need of a retrofit to protect groundwater, according to a Whatcom Conservation District (WCD) estimate.
George Boggs, an attorney and agronomist, leads a team of professionals at the Whatcom Conservation District and says their mission is to help landowners make wise use of natural resources for present and future generations through rigorous planning and application of technical standards.
“Conclusions that dairy lagoons are major contributors of nitrate contamination to Whatcom County aquifers are misguided. Our focus is on field applications of manure where there is a greater potential for loss given our soils and rainfall.” he said. “Losses to groundwater can be minimized by maximizing crop utilization and improving the timing of nutrient applications. Educating farmers on how to make agronomic applications and giving them better tools to assess environmental risk can help avoid pollution to surface and groundwater. Our variable climate, soils, crops and topography require every decision to be on a case-by-case basis to protect the environment and produce highest yields.”
“It is unfortunate that people don’t critically read the scientific articles relating to how manure lagoons perform. The calculated rate of ‘leakage’ overstates the actual contributions of nitrate to groundwater,” Mr. Boggs said. “To say that lagoon leakage is the major source for nitrate levels exceeding MCL 10 (Maximum Contaminant Level @ 10 milligrams per liter) in Whatcom County aquifers is untenable or indefensible.”
The Edaleen and Vander Haak dairies near Lynden attracted 80 manure resource recovery experts from the biennial Waste to Worth Conference for tours of their anaerobic digestion systems, organized by WSU Animal Scientist Joe Harrison. They saw firsthand how these manure digesters convert dairy cow manure into electricity and usable by-products such as compost, peat moss and nutrient-rich fertilizers. There are currently seven anaerobic digestion systems in the Whatcom region.
WSU Assistant Professor Craig Frear, who specializes in digestion systems and related manure management technologies at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, led several of the tours along with dairy farm staff and representatives of Regenis Corporation (suppliers of operations and maintenance for digesters). “It was an eye-opener for these experts to see how dairy producers are doing some cutting edge work with digesters, producing not only electricity but other by-products – and getting carbon credits as well,” Frear said.
Experts learned how the Vander Haak dairy invested in the state’s first manure digester in 2005, and since then have increased power output by 25 percent – enough to power 400 Whatcom homes every year. They have also retooled the digester to reduce odor, and now take commercial food waste as well as cow manure to make nutrient-rich fertilizers. Edaleen Dairy has been in business for 40 years and continues to embrace new technologies. Their digester was commissioned in 2012, producing 750 KW of electrical energy -sufficient to power about 700 homes.
Dr. Frear added that”Incorporation of anaerobic digesters on smaller dairies of, say 400 cows or less, is very difficult due to economics; but researchers are looking at other valued means for processing manure on these smaller dairies, such as innovative compost systems that harness the compost heat and carbon dioxide for installation of greenhouses and the extra produce and revenue they can yield.”
Dairy cow care is fundamental on dairy farms, yet enhanced calf care is evolving and improving as new research changes many traditional ways of doing things – especially “active” calf management and newborn care.
A recent workshop for dairy farmers conducted by Washington State University Extension provided new insights about calf care – from feeding to housing to vaccinations.
“The workshop presenters were knowledgeable about how to get calves off to a good start with nutrition; gradual socialization with other calves; the importance of calf blankets to help the calves maintain body heat; and well maintained ventilation systems,” said Karen Steensma who attended the workshop and divides her time between working on her family dairy farm and working as an Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. John and Karen Steensma are fourth generation dairy farmers who manage 275 milking cows on their Lynden farm. “Every dairy is different based on size, location and weather,” she says, “but there are principles that carry across to ensure the calves are treated well and grow healthy over time.”
Dr. Susan Kerr DVM, PhD, of the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, explained behaviors and misconceptions about housing calves in groups or individually. “In the past, recommendations included moving newborn calves to individual calf hutches to help control pneumonia and scours and monitor individual calf health better. After a month or so in hutches when calves are off to a good start, transitioning them to small groups of 2 to 5 helps them socialize with other calves and has been shown to help them adjust more quickly to group and housing changes in the future,” she says.
Before assessing blame, hear both sides
By Dan Wood, Washington State Dairy Federation and
Blair Thompson, Washington State Dairy Products Commission
A recent Whatcom Watch article penned by two attorneys paints a harrowing portrait of Whatcom County’s dairy farmers. If their story is to be believed, local dairy farmers are irresponsible, out-of-control “industrial operations” bent on destroying the very natural resources on which their families and farms depend for their survival. But is their portrayal a fair one? Are they – as attorneys are wont to do – excluding evidence from their narrative that might help a jury arrive at the truth?
Before rushing to judgment, Whatcom’s dairy families urge Watch readers to hear the other side of the story.
Both attorneys are formerly or currently associated with Western Environmental Law Center – whose business is suing animal agriculture over violations of environmental regulations, real or purported. The appearance, at least, of financial self-interest is undeniable.
The authors support their allegations with numerous citations, but many of the cited references are beyond mandatory retirement age. 1997, 1994, 1992, 1990 – and Richard Nixon in 1970? These stale statistics ignore a very large elephant in the room: passage of the watershed Dairy Nutrient Management Act by the state legislature in 1998 (with dairy industry support) was the turning point in statewide dairy environmental compliance, when old ways were jettisoned and a new “normal” was embraced. The Act established a “zero discharge” standard on contaminated water from dairy farms; requires all dairies to follow a Nutrient Management Plan enforced with mandatory inspections; and erected a sanctions regime for violations. No other Washington State agricultural industry has stepped up to this level of management.
Dairyland News is distributed to dairy farm families, business leaders/dairy farm suppliers, government staff, elected officials, and news media to show how dairy farmers contribute to the community, with safe operations, best farm management practices and effective stewardship of land and animals. Dairyland News is produced by the Washington Dairy Products Commission in cooperation with the Washington State Dairy Federation.