Aerial manure irrigation raises fears

2013-04-22T07:00:00Z Aerial manure irrigation raises fearsRON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6131

A group of residents fighting the growth of industrial farms in central Wisconsin is seeking to halt a practice by the big farms they say poses serious health threats: the application of liquid manure through aerial spraying.

Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network (SRWN), is asking a towns association to create a model ordinance towns could pass to stem the use of the manure spraying systems, which opponents say can expose neighbors to viral and bacterial pathogens found in untreated manure.

“These sprayers are being promoted as innovative technology,” said Bob Clarke, president of SRWN, “when in fact they have the potential to expose the people to disease outbreaks, severe diarrhea, and growing antibiotic resistance.”

Some towns — including the town of Rosendale, home to the state’s largest dairy operation — already passed measures to ban the spray systems.

State Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp and Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel recently wrote to the leaders of the Wisconsin Towns Association and Wisconsin Counties Association asking them not to discourage use of aerial manure application, despite health concerns.

“As leaders of your respective associations, we encourage you to work with your members to make sure they do not adopt local ordinances that restrict the use of approved and accepted technologies unless it can be documented and demonstrated that there are environmental or public health risks associated with them,” Stepp and Brancel wrote.

Not ‘shooting cow pies’

Wisconsin Towns Association Executive Director Richard Stadelman said it was unlikely he would recommend the association adopt a model ordinance towns could use to ban the practice of manure irrigation. He said there is a lot of misunderstanding

about how the process works.

“Some people think we’re shooting cow pies way up in the air,” he said. “We’re not.”

The DNR, which has come under harsh criticism from SRWN and other groups for not doing enough to regulate the applicators, has undertaken new studies of the aerial systems and their health impacts and is convening a group to consider new regulations.

Andrew Craig, a nutrient management specialist with the DNR, estimated there are about six large, permitted industrial-size farms that have the aerial application system — identical to an irrigation system — and are using it on a limited basis. He said one or two farms are using the application method regularly.

“It’s not very common,” Craig said, “but it’s going to become more common.”

Craig said there are two types of aerial applicators. One uses a center pivot system, identical to large irrigation systems, with downward facing nozzles. Another is a mobile system that looks like a giant lawn sprinkler and sprays the liquid manure more into the air than the center pivot machines. Manure is piped to both applicators via a pipeline from the farm. Craig said some of the underground pipelines run as many as five miles.

Currently, farms generally truck liquid manure to outlying fields and spread it directly onto the ground.

But Craig said aerial systems are less expensive for farmers and allow them to be more precise in how they apply manure to their fields and crops.

System is more precise

Mike Dummer, a grain and hog farmer near La Crosse, said he has used manure irrigation for nearly 25 years. He said a big advantage is that it eliminates the use of trucks and wear and tear on local roads. He also said it allows for precise application on crops even while they are growing.

“We’re spoon-feeding the crops,” Dummer said.

Even though the irrigation system is near some rural homes, Dummer said there have been few complaints over the years. “We work hard to be good neighbors,” he said. “A lot of it is just common sense. A lot of times we spread at night when the wind is down and people have their windows closed.”

Chief among the concerns from groups such as SRWN is that aerial application can result in pathogens from the manure being picked up and spread by the wind. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has identified 160 pathogens in manure capable of causing disease in humans.

And in a February 2011 letter to the DNR, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health cited an aerial irrigation study from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality that warned the practice “may contribute to microbial risk under high wind conditions.”

Also, research has shown manure lagoons on big farms contain antibiotics, which can be a factor in the potential increase of human resistance to antibiotics.

Craig said regulations already in place control some use of the aerial applicators.

For example, statutes require that the rigs not be used closer than 500 feet to an occupied home. Laws also control distances from wells and groundwater supplies.

Holes in state regulations

But critics such as Clarke say more regulations and oversight will be necessary. He said, for example, the DNR has no best management practices — rules that govern when and how the devices are used. For example, he said, there are no rules to stop a farmer from using one of the aerial applicators on a windy day.

Craig agreed there are some holes in the state’s regulatory scheme, especially the absence of best management practices.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to get a handle on,” he said.

To fill in such gaps and to consider other concerns, a work group on the subject of aerial irrigation was formed by the UW-Extension. It will be made up of DNR and university experts, local government officials, farmers and representatives from concerned citizens groups.

This is the second incarnation of the work group; the first came under fire from Clarke and others for including operators of large farms but no citizen activists. That group first convened last fall and met a couple of times.

Craig defended its makeup, including the absence of any representatives from groups critical of aerial spraying and industrial size farms in general.

“We wanted to have a technical group to get a handle on what we were dealing with,” Craig said. He added the meetings were open and people not on the panel were allowed to sit in on the two sessions.

In addition to participating in the work group, Craig said the DNR commissioned studies from UW-Madison on the pathogen content of liquid manure and the potential for the pathogens to be carried through the air.

Complaints drive efforts

Even with the agency’s efforts to study and possibly boost its regulatory efforts, critics fear the DNR, hit hard by budget cuts and already behind in its inspection and permitting issues for other programs, will not be able to adequately oversee use of the aerial applicators.

Lynn Utesch, with SRWN, said he sees minimal enforcement on large farms in Kewaunee County and elsewhere in northeast Wisconsin.

“Who is going to be checking on these?” asked Utesch. “Right now it is very much a paper process. Any inspections that are done are due to citizen complaints.”

Craig said the 12-person agricultural runoff staff has two vacancies. Even so, he said the agency has tried to increase its number of manure audits in which inspectors check to make sure farmers are following their manure management plans. He agreed, however, that the system is “mostly complaint driven.”

“We’re relying a lot on the contacts we receive from the public,” Craig said.

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(16) Comments

  1. beachmama
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    beachmama - June 24, 2013 3:42 am
    Good points. I'm so relieved to read that Wisconsin is actually doing something about this. We here in California just look the other way. I have fabulous images of liquified cow manure splattered all over my windshield . . .
  2. beachmama
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    beachmama - June 24, 2013 3:39 am
    Good questions LWP . . . I've read articles about human sewage being spread on fields here in CA and the illnesses that have ensued. Unfortunately it's not just Big Ag here in CA . . .
  3. beachmama
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    beachmama - June 24, 2013 3:37 am
    We here in California also think it’s a brilliant idea to shoot liquified cow manure from giant sprinklers. This method is cheaper than having tank trucks driving through your fields to spread the manure. The health hazards of shooting live bacteria into the air to drift miles beyond it's intended target are yet to be identified. I for one began suffering painful, debilitating sinus infections. I know dozens of people who complain about “allergies” every year when the sprinklers are activated. I’ve contacted air quality control and they told me that there is nothing they can do . . . “the agriculture industry is too powerful and there are only two of us for the entire State”. Seriously?! That’s how little we care about the quality of our air and water. This stuff is running off into our waterways and into our oceans. The people of Wisconsin are not as apathetic as we are here in Northern California. Good on you Wisconsin to take your health into your hands and get this insane practice stopped!
  4. littlewhitepuppy
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    littlewhitepuppy - April 26, 2013 8:59 am
    What if we get a really hot and humid summer? Even if there's not much wind, the air itself will be a heavily laden breeding ground for deadly bacteria, just on account of the suspended water and particulates alone! This is how diseases are spread in third world countries. Check it out.
  5. littlewhitepuppy
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    littlewhitepuppy - April 26, 2013 8:54 am
    Are you kidding??? Obviously the people in favor of this inctredibly irresponsible behavior are not at all concerned about anyone but themselves. How about in YOUR back yards, Ben Brancel and Kathy Stepp? I BET you wouldn't like it. "Spoon feeding crops"?, how ignorant do you really think the public is? Trying to "soften" the issue with sweet talk? And what about you, Stadelman, "shooting cow pies into the air"?, everyone that lives near or has seen manure spreading KNOWS that it's in liquid form, AND untreated/composted, AND PUTRID! What about those farmers that spread UNTREATED HUMAN sewage??? Do we have that regulated, or is that open game as well? When people get sick, will the powers that approve this obscenity put strict regulations on when we can go outside or open our windows? Will the people's freedoms once again be regulated to allow the "progress" of BigAG?
  6. Cornelius Gotchberg
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    Cornelius Gotchberg - April 22, 2013 11:07 am
    Spraying/spreading manure should be confined to where it has the smallest per capita deleterious effect; Madison Commonsenseless Council meetings.

    The Gotch
  7. dante
    Report Abuse
    dante - April 22, 2013 10:49 am
    Shooting e-coli ladden cow$#!~ into the air with zero regulation on when it can be done, how late in the season it can be done, and how near to other crops (that are at a different point in their development cycle) it can be done?

    And all of this only 500' away from someone's house?

    Yeah, I can't imagine how this could lead to anything other than unicorns and rainbows..... The governor wants to keep wind farms a mile away from any house because there might be an occasional shadow that goes over the house for a 10min stretch in the evening, but I can shoot cow dung straight up into the air only 500' away?

    Looks like the wind farm developers should've paid off Walker as much as some of these mega-farmers did...
  8. tasman
    Report Abuse
    tasman - April 22, 2013 10:46 am
    How is this manure different than any other manure that has been applied to farm fields forever? Please be specific and on target with your answers.
  9. Hattee Coli
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    Hattee Coli - April 22, 2013 9:29 am
    You reap what you sow...
    Sooo Wisconsin government is just fine trading children's water for a glass of milk be it whole or powder junk.
    I could tell them to go eat poo as a snarkism,
    but the powers that be seem fine with the idea...
    You cannot drink money let alone breathe it. Our air and water are not to be sold and it is criminal to make citizens buy it back with their tax dollars and lawsuits.
    YOU Just Can't FIX Stupid.
  10. Observer5
    Report Abuse
    Observer5 - April 22, 2013 8:28 am
    As if we don't have enough poisonous materials in the air already.
  11. Buckearl
    Report Abuse
    Buckearl - April 22, 2013 7:20 am
    Wisconsin's government officials mentioned in this article should study research by universities and the World Health Association on the danger of factory farms. It's outrageous that Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp and Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel are asking people to overlook their health concerns.

    Read more:
  12. milton's fried man
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    milton's fried man - April 22, 2013 7:19 am
    I'd be more worried about the prions but aerosolized e coli almost sounds like a weapons system don't it?

  13. tasman
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    tasman - April 22, 2013 6:57 am
    We all know that cow manure is truly hazardous. After all, you see and hear about both cows and the farmers working next to them dropping like flies every day. I think nearly half of the obituaries list cow poo odor inhalation as the cause of death.

    Lets regulate this practice soon - before Dane county experiences a poo perpetrated population pattern.
  14. Robert James
    Report Abuse
    Robert James - April 22, 2013 6:46 am
    Are you out of your mind?? You're going to spray a liquified stream of fecal matter into the open air, and hope the wind doesn't carry anything away?

    The fact that this has been in use for a quarter-century or more near la Crosse is appalling enough.
  15. smithy
    Report Abuse
    smithy - April 22, 2013 6:42 am
    I use to drive by one of these inn operation on a frewuent basis. You wouldn't believe the intensity of the smell, and how far the smell carried.
  16. 920Annie
    Report Abuse
    920Annie - April 22, 2013 6:21 am
    Yeah who ever thought this MIGHT be a good idea??? You try to contain as much to the field as possible to avoid contamination, how would you ever contain it when spraying it in the air?
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