So far, no large lagoon spills at dairiesOn most dairy farms, the manure that cows emit is collected and spread on fields to fertilize crops. Before the waste material is spread, however, it must be stored.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of stories examining revolutionary changes in the dairy industry in South Dakota. The final story will focus on the proposed dairy in Hanson County.
Milk isn’t the only product produced by cattle.
On most dairy farms, the manure that cows emit is collected and spread on fields to fertilize crops. It is diluted with water and other waste material before it is placed atop corn, wheat and other crops.
Before the waste material is spread, however, it must be stored. Dairy farmers have massive lagoons filled with the material alongside their dairy barns.
While that nutrient-rich material is usually safely placed in the fields, there are sometimes spills, a failure to follow the law or other problems.
Kent Woodmansey has been the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ natural resources engineering director for more than 20 years.
Woodmansey said dairies don’t cause much environmental damage.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve had any large spills,” he said. “We’ve had small spills at facilities.”
DENR has filed dairy-related enforcement actions 16 times since 1997. Fines were issued nine times, ranging from $2,529 to $15,000.
The largest fine was issued to Schneck Farms, located near Sisseton in Grant County, for a manure discharge that went into a river and caused a fish kill. The $15,000 fine was issued in 1998 and the dairy was later sold.
It was the second penalty in two years for the dairy, which had been cited but not fined in 1997 when a manure holding pond overflowed but did not reach the river.
Some critics feel the state has gone too easy on large animal feedlots and dairies. The Natural Resources Defense Council said South Dakota has been slow to deal with spills, including one at the Joe L. Pires & Company dairy in Brookings County in 1999.
“In one case, involving the Pires Dairy, the DENR placed permit conditions on the facility aimed at protecting the environment but failed to properly to verify that the conditions were being met, ending in the spilling of some 300,000 gallons of animal waste,” the NRDC wrote on its website.
The Pires Dairy was issued a court-ordered civil penalty of $13,000.
“In another case, involving the Schneck Farm Dairies, the DENR delayed a full week before visiting a site where a manure spill had been reported,” NRDC wrote.
DENR was alerted to the March 10, 1997, spill by Dakota Rural Action, a rural advocacy group, the day after the lagoons started to overflow. DENR declined to respond, and said it would only investigate if a written complaint was issued.
Finally, after staffers with the state of Minnesota looked into the spill, which was flowing into that state, DENR launched an investigation.
“As late as May 1997, South Dakota’s environmental officials continued to insist that there was no evidence that the river was affected by the manure,” said the NRDC website. “But Minnesota’s environmental officials maintained the liquid manure had flowed into the north fork of the Yellow Bank River, even after Schneck Dairy’s workers tried to clean up the spill.”
Even the state’s top agriculture official has run afoul of DENR. Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones’ ordered an engineering evaluation of the water use and capacity of the manure system.
But when inspectors returned on May 13, 2010, nothing had been done.
Both dairies were in the midst of a bankruptcy process and eventually complied. Veblen West was fined $8,520. Both dairies are now owned and managed by a Minnesota firm that has pledged to follow environmental guidelines.
Woodmansey said the current regulatory system, which was put into place in 1997 and 1998 after “extensive discussions with members of the public, livestock producers, different agricultural organizations such as the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, and the South Dakota Farm Bureau,” has worked well.
“These permits have served the state well as the road maps for owners and operators of concentrated animal feeding operations to gain and maintain compliance with environmental requirements in South Dakota,” he said.
Typical violations for which enforcement actions have been filed include:
• Operating without permit coverage;
• Not operating the manure management system in accordance with the general permit;
• Constructing or populating parts of manure management systems without DENR approval;
• And small manure discharges that have resulted in little or no environmental damage.
The fines are deposited in the state Environmental Livestock Cleanup Fund.
It was established by the Legislature in 1998 to help pay to clean up livestock operations where the owner or operator cannot or will not take corrective actions.
Woodmansey said the dairies are inspected when they get their permits and then every year or three years depending on their size. Operations with 1,400 or more head of dairy cows or 2,000 or more head of heifers are inspected at least every year.
Smaller facilities are inspected at least every three years.
DENR issues general permits for all dairies and special permits for dairies with 700 head of mature dairy cows or 1,000 heifers. They are referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
The state has issued 407 such CAFO permits, 45 of them to dairies. The CAFOs are required to keep detailed records.
“If those facilities have a spill, they have to notify us with 24 hours,” Woodmansey said. “That’s a permit requirement.”
Bones is proud of his dairy’s efforts to use the manure the cattle produce. During a tour of Turner County Dairy, he showed particular interest in how the manure and waste material is handled and disposed of by his team.
It’s stored in a pair of large lagoons and then piped to fields, where a hose is connected to a chisel plow. A tractor injects the nutrients 6 to 8 inches deep into the fields.
Being a permitted facility, a DENR formula allows between 15,000 and 18,000 gallons to be placed into each acre.
He said there have been few problems other than a pinhole leak or two in the pipeline. Farmers don’t want to run waste on their fields or their neighbors’, he said, nor do they want DENR penalizing them.
Bones does quibble about the terms most people use to describe the waste material.
“I prefer ‘organic nutrients’ to manure,” he said in an e-mail.
“And ‘earthen nutrient storage basins’ to lagoons. We are truly storing these crop nutrients until they can be land-applied according to DENR guidelines,” Bones said. “Most lagoons (i.e. city) don’t get emptied twice per year.”
He said those terms “more accurately reflect the reality of the situation” and don’t have such a negative connotation.
“There is a tremendous amount of value in those organic nutrients,” Bones said.
Turner County Dairy was fined $2,454.38 in 2008 for increasing his herd without the proper permit and for not following a nutrient plan for disposing of manure.
Bones, who was named ag secretary earlier this year, said it was an oversight.
“We put up a special needs barn (addition) and had some cows in there when the DENR came for its final inspection/approval,” he said in an e-mail. “We paid the fine and got our permit.”
A pair of massive dairies that were known as Veblen West and Veblen East, both located in the small community in Marshall County in northeast South Dakota, had a troubled history. While their DENR permits mandated that manure be stored 2 feet from the top of the lagoon to prevent it from slopping out in the wind or when rain or snow caused an overflow, that wasn’t observed.
Neighbors reported seeing bales placed along the lagoon in an effort to keep the liquid manure from overflowing.
The dairies were cited on Oct. 23, 2009, for operating while their manure ponds were too full. DENR