It was a cool, sunny morning when we stopped outside the small town of Hudson in the hills of southeastern Michigan just across the Indiana and Ohio borders.¬† We came to visit a dairy farm, but not just any farm.¬† This one, run by a member of the Dutch Vreba-Hoff LLC group, has 28-hundred cows.¬† That’s right, 2-thousand, 8-hundred cows.¬† That’s a lot of cows.
In the milking parlor (why they call them that no one could tell us), 80 cows are milked at a time using milking machines.¬† The cows are milked three times a day.¬† There’s¬† just barely time to wash down and sterilize the parlor a couple of times a day.¬† The cows spend the bulk of their day in long, canvas-sided barns called free-stalls.¬† Free-stall means the animals can walk around, lie down to chew their cud and generally hang out.¬†¬† The canvas sides can be rolled up or down, depending on the weather, to keep the cows cool and comfortable.
The big issue with this many cows is – well, there’s no way to be delicate here.¬† These cows produce a LOT of manure.¬† The EPA’s rule of thumb is that one cow produces about 20 times more waste than a person.¬† There’s been a lot of good stuff written about the manure problems with large animal operations or CAFO’s (the “c” stands for confined, as the animals stay inside.)¬† The biggest issue is that, improperly handled, manure operations at these huge farms can leak into waterways or run-off from fields spread with the manure.¬† That can make groundwater wells unsafe and contribute to algae blooms and dead zones in Lake Erie.
We’ve got a few of these operations in northwest Ohio, and state regulators say the trend is toward more of these large animal farms.¬† Economies of scale and low profit margins for farming are pushing the trend.¬† What struck many of us journalists from Ohio is that the woman we talked to from Vreba-Hoff said if she could move all her Michigan and Indiana and Ohio farms anywhere, she’d pick Ohio.¬† She says that’s because Ohio’s Department of Agriculture – which took over large animal farm jurisdiction from the Ohio EPA in 2000 – has rules on how you set up the farm operations and manage them.¬† She says all those rules make for greater certainty on the part of farmers.¬† They know what to do and are less likely to be fined.
Just for the record – the Vreba-Hoff farm we visited DID smell like cows, no question.¬† But it was not at all overwhelming, even at the manure lagoons.¬† And we didn’t see a single fly.