The midpoint U.S. dairy herd in 1982 had 80 cows, while in 2007 it had 570 cows. In 1987, the number of hogs moving through a typical commercial farm each year was 1,200. By 2007, that number rose to 30,000.
Such prodigious numbers are made possible by so-called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOS, that can make dairy and protein production more efficient, but also generate huge quantities of waste. One pig produces more than three times the waste of a person. One cow produces as much as 23 times more waste than a person.
In southeastern Michigan’s Lenawee County, a recent rise in CAFOs — there are 13 in the county, though several are not currently operating —- has driven some local residents to environmental activism. Many of the CAFOs are within the River Raisin watershed, which flows into Lake Erie at Monroe, Mich., and is currently listed as a federal Area of Concern (AOC) due in part to nutrient pollution.
“They use clean fresh groundwater to make waste,” Lynn Henning, a Lenawee resident and a CAFO water sentinel for the Michigan Sierra Club, told Circle of Blue. “They rinse the barns, they wash the [milking] parlors, they’re not recycling any of the water that they use. It’s put out into these lagoons and flushed, and then it sits in these large pits and ferments until they haul it out like this. So you’re making a toxic soup to put out on the land.”
Henning, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010 for her activism, explained that the CAFOs are not required to treat any of this waste for pathogens or nutrients like phosphorus. They are, however, considered point sources under the Clean Water Act. This means that they cannot discharge waste directly into a waterway. They can, though, store the manure in large lagoons.
In the fall, CAFO farmers empty their lagoons by dragging hoses across their fields to spray the liquid manure, or truck dry manure out in semis to spread on the fields.
The CAFOs must also create a comprehensive nutrient management plan that explains when, where and how much manure they will spread. Blaine Baker, who operates a dairy CAFO in Lenawee County with his brother, said the Clean Water Act permit generates a lot of paperwork, but it is rarely inspected by state officials unless a neighbor complains.
Baker has 550 cows on his farm—fewer than the 700 that qualify a farm as a CAFO. But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required Baker to get a permit after two discharges of manure from the farm flowed into nearby creeks. Baker said the discharges were a result of spreading manure on frozen ground, where it cannot mix into the soil.
In the past 10 years, however, Baker said he has seen practices change on his own farm and on others in the area.
“When I look at the neighbors around here, I look at 20,000 acres here in Clayton, Michigan. Everybody is grid sampling. They’re variable rating [fertilizer]. There are more cover crops going on, you’ve got filter strips. You’ve got all this stuff happening, and yet we’ve got this Lake Erie situation that has cropped up all of a sudden,” he told Circle of Blue. “I can’t argue with the fact that there’s a problem there because I’ve seen it. It’s a big problem. I have trouble seeing that it’s coming from my back door.”