Friday, December 14, 2018

Keeping cow poop out of the water

Chris McGann

Holstein dairy cows at Plowman Dairy in Yelm.
If the true test of Dairy Nutrient Management planning is how well a facility handles rain, you could say WSDA’s Kyrre Flege scored perfect conditions this week when he drove out to the Plowman Dairy near Yelm for a regular inspection.

The rain had been coming down hard overnight and it was still pouring when Flege pulled into the yard outside Matt Plowman’s barns. Two stout, square-headed, brown dogs, Milo and Otis, greeted Flege with friendly barks and tails wagging as he stepped out of the gray state vehicle into a wet gray day -- and a mud puddle.

Otis and Milo give a warm hello before an
 inspection at Plowman Dairy.  
WSDA regulators inspect dairy farms on roughly 18-month intervals in large part to make sure some of the site visits occur during the rainy months.

Mission accomplished.
“Today is going to be the wettest inspection this dairy has had in several years,” Flege said.

Keeping water clean and clear

Dairy Nutrient Management is a WSDA program established to protect water quality from livestock nutrient discharge -- or in other words, to make sure producers keep their cow poop out of the water.

The program helps educate those who don't know that they have to keep poop out of the water, and penalizes those who know the rules, but don’t follow them.

In addition to education and equitable enforcement of state and federal water quality laws, Dairy Nutrient Management aims to help maintain a healthy agricultural business climate through clear guidance and technical assistance.

The top concerns for managing dairy manure are preventing harmful bacteria from contaminating surface water and preventing nitrogen from seeping into ground water.

The risks
Matt Plowman talks with Kyrre Flege about some of the
 proactive measures he has taken to protect water quality.

Runoff contaminated by manure or feed from a dairy could allow fecal coliform bacteria, pathogens, nutrients and sediment to get into surface water such as creeks and rivers. It threatens human health, fish and other wildlife.

Most dairy manure is stored in lagoons during wet months and then applied as fertilizer during the growing season and when there is less risk that it will contaminate surface water as runoff.

Dairy farmers must also monitor soil nitrogen levels in their fields to make sure they only applied what is necessary for their crops. If the nitrogen load exceeds that need, it could seep into groundwater and create a public health risk.

“If you can’t show why your crops need it, most people would call it waste disposal,” Flege said.

Taking pride in the family farm

A well-cared-for Holstein dairy cow stays dry during a
December storm. 
Matt Plowman sauntered up to meet us outside, offering a generous smile and a handshake before beginning the two-hour assessment. The life-long farmer clearly takes pride in caring for his cows and maintaining the operation he took over from his father.

“I think these cows get treated better than people,” he said. “They each have a nutritionist, regular pedicures and weekly doctor visits.”

Plowman guided Flege through the well-kept facilities, past the feed bins, silage bunkers and through the calf barn to the three large lagoons in the field behind. A steady flow of foamy manure slurry poured into the first. They walked the perimeter and observed the pipes and pumps that kept moving manure through the system.

Kyrre Flege inspects the inflow at one of the Plowman Dairy
 manure lagoons. 
“Some people say we get milk as a byproduct of our manure production,” Plowman said with a wry grin.

Making a big splash

Dairy Nutrient Management is a good fit for Flege, the program’s lead regulator.

Flege majored in environmental resource management at Western Washington University. He has been with WSDA for five years. Building on his experience inspecting dairies in the Lynden area, he recently moved to Olympia, where he now supervises inspectors statewide and covers dairy inspections in Southwest Washington.

“I like the work,” Flege said. “It’s an opportunity to protect our resources and water quality. I feel like we can make a big difference.”

Relationships are key to providing effective support for
proper manure management.
Flege says the program’s regulatory role dovetails well with its mandate to provide education and support.

“We build relationships with producers and we work really hard to help them understand the value of protecting resources,” he said. “The industry’s future depends on being environmentally sustainable. There is no future for dairy farming if it comes at the cost of water quality.”

Record keeping

After the facility inspection, Flege joined Plowman in the office to review his record keeping – a cornerstone of the program’s mission.

The law says you can’t discharge pollution to surface or groundwater.

Matt Plowman helps Kyrre Flege understand the
geography of his farm.
“You have to keep records,” Flege said. “Complete records tell a story of how well you manage manure for your crops and the environment. Having a well maintained facility, sound record keeping, and following guidance in your Dairy Nutrient Management Plan will keep you in compliance."

Flege studied the application records, soil analysis results and detailed maps of the dairy. He asked questions to make sure he understood the topography and the drainage.

He explained his findings to Plowman, complimenting him on the safe nitrogen levels in his fields and properly functioning waste water management systems.

“Your lagoons are in great shape,” Flege said. “And the curbs you have in place are handling the rain on a very wet day.”

But Flege also noted that the heavy rain was overloading the driveway storm water runoff filter at the low end of the feed yard.

Before leaving, Flege promised to work with Plowman and help connect him to resources to upgrade that element.