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Dairy farmer Mike Kiechle of Philadelphia, NY, spreads manure from his tractor. He's the kind of small farmer the new rules are trying to target, but he says he doubts he'll grow his herd bigger. Photo: David Sommerstein
Dairy farmer Mike Kiechle of Philadelphia, NY, spreads manure from his tractor. He's the kind of small farmer the new rules are trying to target, but he says he doubts he'll grow his herd bigger. Photo: David Sommerstein

Will easing dairy manure rules do much at all?

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Last month, Governor Cuomo carried through on a promise he made to dairy farmers, loosening environmental regulations for small farms.

Right now, a farm with 200 cows or more has to prepare detailed and costly manure management plans. Starting this week, that threshold will be bumped up to 300 cows.

Speaking at last summer's Yogurt Summit, Agriculture Commissioner Darrel Aubertine said the change would help boost milk production to meet demand fueled by Greek yogurt's popularity. "Simply put," said Aubertine, "this will make it much easier for small farms to grow."

North Country lawmakers and the state Farm Bureau praised the rule change. But environmental groups say more unregulated manure means more farm runoff in rivers and streams. It remains a big question whether the change will do much of anything at all - to the environment or for the economy.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

The average milking cow produces 150 pounds of manure a day. Multiply that by 300 cows on a farm and you've got a whole lot of you-know-what.

Bill Cook, with Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Syracuse, says that comes out to 750,000 lbs. of waste a month. His figure is actually low – it's 1.3 million pounds of manure a month. But his point is raising the threshold for mandatory manure management plans from 200 to 300 cows is a bad move.

"To say to these guys, you know, you don't need a plan, you don't need a permit, you don't need to worry about state regulations, it is ill-conceived. It is not environmentally sound. It's not science-based. And it actually does almost nothing to help the farmers."

Cook says instead, keep the 200 cow threshold and give farmers money to help them manage their manure properly.

Ask water quality experts around the country. They'll tell you agricultural runoff, from manure-, pesticide-, and fertilizer-covered fields, is the biggest source of non-regulated water pollution.

And it's not necessarily the big guys, says Jan Laitos. He studies water quality and environmental law at the University of Denver. By federal law, the big guys have to design complex manure management plans and acquire permits. It's all little guys, Laitos says, a sort of death by a thousand cuts.

"If you add up all the small farms and livestock operations that are out there, they are enormous. Maybe individually they're not very large, but if you add them all up, the aggregate combined numbers are significant and cause a huge water pollution problem in this country."

Let's peer through the regulatory haze for a second. The manure plans in question are known as CAFOs – which stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

New York's CAFO standards are more rigorous than most other states in the country. The 200-cow threshold was set in 1999, years before the federal government even had CAFO rules. But Bill Cook says that's no reason to backstep. "The fact that a number of states are doing less than New York is not justification for New York to do less."

Mark Gertsman has a different view. He's executive deputy commissioner for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

"The critics aren't really very knowledgeable about this issue and unfortunately, they don't see the big picture."

Gertsman says the DEC approved the CAFO change because the big picture is saving small dairy farms from going under, keeping farmland in production, and preventing the CAFO rules from being a barrier to growth.

"We were very impressed with the number of farms waiting to expand. What we have to do in New York State is look at these issues holistically."

Gertsman says making it easier for a farm to grow from 200 to almost 300 cows is good for business and that'll help farmers invest in better manure management.

"So the healthier economically that these farms are, the better that they will be at implementing pollution prevention practices consistent with our approach."

Gerstman says New York's budget includes an extra $1 million to help farmers along.

Shane Rogers is an expert on CAFOs at Clarkson University, where he's a professor of environmental engineering. He says any farm producing manure can cause water pollution. But Rogers says even unregulated small farms have an interest in handling waste properly.

"There's savings involved with using manure rather than chemical fertilizers. There's interest on the part of farmers for maintaining a healthy, not only for their own families but also for the people in their own communities. So from that sense, this really is just a release from the extra technical burdens."

The paperwork, the testing, and that's what farmers dislike most about CAFOs.

But Rogers and others question whether it's enough of a savings in time and money to do what the rule change intended - spur farmers to grow their herds and make more milk.

Jay Matteson doesn't think so. Matteson is Jefferson County's agricultural coordinator. He says more cows means more barns, more tractors, more land, and eventually more employees. He says many of the state's 870 small farms fear that kind of investment. So they may not make the leap. "I don't expect to see a huge increase," he says.

What matters most, says Matteson, is making sure farmers know the environmental rules won't change again anytime soon.

Keep things where they're at for the next ten years. Deal with that and that I think would have more of an impact on growing our milk production than just changing the threshold by a hundred cows.

The new CAFO rules take effect on Wednesday.

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