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Manure spread on frozen ground runs off into rivers and streams during the thaw. Photo: USDA
Manure spread on frozen ground runs off into rivers and streams during the thaw. Photo: USDA

Manure rule raises water quality concerns

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A recent victory for New York's farm leaders has raised concerns about water quality. Dairy and livestock farms produce a lot of manure. Many farmers spread it on to their fields in liquid form.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had proposed a nationwide ban against spreading manure onto frozen ground. It's now decided against the ban. The Farm Bureau praises the change of mind, but others are concerned about increases in nutrient run-off from fields during spring thaws.

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Matt Nelligan is spokesman for the New York farm bureau.  He says more than half the comments to the USDA on this issue came from New York farmers. "The reality of farming in New York State is that you’ve got to be able to spread manure in the winter, and you’ve got a fairly substantial winter period here, and there’s no way to avoid doing so without damaging your crop and making your fields less fruitful. So, it’s a particular issue that is important in New York State and in northeast farming in general," Nelligan said. 

But some experts says farmers can transition to a system that doesn’t spread manure on frozen ground, and that would be better for the environment. Elizabeth Newbold grew up on a small dairy in Central New York.  Now she works for the Finger Lakes Land Trust, and Cornell Cooperative Extension. She says when manure is applied to frozen ground, it sits on top and freeze. "When the first thaw comes in the spring everything thaws and instead of soaking into the ground, because the ground it still frozen, it tends to run with the snow, wherever the snow will take it," she said. 

Newbold says nutrients from farm manure runoff into rivers and streams. She says places such as Lake Champlain have seen the results – high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, which causes algae growth. The algae uses the oxygen needed by plants and fish and degrades the water quality. 

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