I feel compelled to respond to a letter published Nov. 6 in the Leader-Telegram. The image of modern agriculture she presented was misleading.
The focus was CAFOs, which were portrayed as a serious environmental threat, with the writer going as far as to say these farms, “cause a complete breakdown of the ecosystem.” That’s scary stuff, but it’s not true.
CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, is just a term created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to describe a larger farm. Due to their size, these farms are subject to additional environmental regulations, but that is the main difference between these farms and their smaller counterparts.
In Wisconsin, a farm is considered a CAFO if it has 1,000 animal units, but that does not necessarily mean 1,000 animals. Different animals correspond to a different animal unit calculation. For example, a farm with 700 dairy cows is a CAFO. It is possible for a farm with even fewer cows to be a CAFO, since any younger animals (calves and heifers) also count toward their animal unit total.
While a dairy with 700 cows is definitely bigger than most Wisconsin dairy farms, it isn’t a huge farm. In fact, that number is below the average herd size in several states. Larger farms have become more common as the number of people engaged in farming declines. At our peak, Wisconsin had 142,000 dairy farms. Now, we have around 9,400. The growth of those remaining farms is inevitable and necessary if we want any chance of supplying our cheesemakers with enough milk for their factories.
The writer would have a very difficult time telling the difference between a dairy farm with 500 or 600 cows and a CAFO with 800 or 900. Those few hundred extra cows will not turn the family farm next to you into the environmental catastrophe she describes. Indeed, the larger farm will actually face more regulations and oversight.
As much as the writer would like you to believe otherwise, cows that live indoors in Wisconsin are happy and healthy. The freestall barns that are a fixture on dairy CAFOs and common on smaller dairy farms are designed with cow comfort in mind. The temperature is closely controlled and the floors are continuously cleaned. As “freestall” suggests, the animals have room to roam. They lounge on sand beds, socialize with the rest of the herd and get their fill of fresh water and carefully prepared food. Make no mistake, Wisconsin’s dairy cows are as healthy as ever before.
I would encourage the writer to visit with her farm neighbors to see the careful thought and significant investment they put into designing and building their barns. We treat our cows well because we love them and it’s the right thing to do.
The writer refers repeatedly to the “toxic waste” produced by CAFOs. This is her way of talking about manure, an important fertilizer needed to grow crops. Manure is a good thing, not bad. Manure from a CAFO is not generally going to be different than manure from a non-CAFO. Both contain pathogens, but both also contain valuable nutrients that crops need.
There is no good reason to be concerned about the extra manure a CAFO in this area could produce. Since 1950, Dunn, Eau Claire and St. Croix counties have lost nearly 50,000 dairy cattle. There is less cow manure in these counties, not more. Furthermore, there is nowhere near enough manure in this region to meet the nutrient needs of the area’s cropland. Instead, farmers have to rely on inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus, which is generally mined on the other side of the planet.
One of the writer’s concerns is nitrate contamination. There are wells in the area that have high nitrate results. This is true throughout the state and the Midwest. While Wisconsin actually fares better in this regard than several of its neighboring states, we still need to do better. Nitrogen is needed for our crops, but we don’t want excess nutrients to negatively affect groundwater. It is both wasteful and potentially harmful.
Farmers on CAFOs and other farms are doing more than ever before to prevent nitrogen losses. UW Discovery Farms is engaged in a nitrogen efficiency study to address this problem. Farmer-led watershed initiatives have started across the state to mitigate nutrient losses and impacts on ground and surface water. There are initiatives like this operating in Dunn and neighboring counties.
I believe that the writer is genuinely concerned about her community and the environment. What she may not know is that her farmer neighbors, including those who own and operate CAFOs, feel the same way.
I would encourage her to reach out to farmers in her area to learn more about what they are doing to improve the way they farm and their stewardship of our shared resources. There is work to be done to better protect our environment, but farmers of all sizes are certainly willing to do their part.
Solum is genetics manager at her family’s dairy farm in Deer Park.