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.