Environmental Costs of High-Density Cattle Farming

by Sarah Whitney

A dramatic increase in the density of United State’s dairy farms has created a cause for concern across the nation. The number of cattle per farm has jumped from 1000 to more than 15,000 cows. Dairy producers are easily able to increase their production and thus their profit with access to cheap fuel and feed. The State Department of Natural Resources states that dairy farms containing 500 cows or more have increased by 150% in size, but the number of dairy farms in the United States has decreased by a third. Such an increase in high-density cattle farms has generated a major issue with proper manure disposal. On small-scale farms, roaming cows naturally fertilize the pasture with their manure. Yet on large-scale cattle farms, where cows are confined to a barn, the ratio between cattle and land is extremely out of proportion and thus the significant amount of manure in a small space poses a huge environmental problem.

Manure is primarily composed of nitrate, phosphorus, and excess hormones fed to cows to foster growth and prevent diseases. Improper disposal of such material has led to many cases of groundwater and surface water contamination. For example, in February of 2014, there was a 1 million gallon spill from a manure lagoon into local waterways causing a 5-mile plume across Michigan Allegan country. Runoff from dairy farms seeps into aquifers used for drinking water, elevating nitrate concentration to unsafe levels and possibly adding estrogenic compounds from the hormones. Additionally, contamination to surface water increases and promotes algae blooms creating dead zones. A dead zone is a habitat void of life caused by the loss of oxygen in water and thus the death and migration of marine life.

Many environmentalists, residents, and policy makers are protesting the expansion of dairy farms because of the repercussions of improper manure disposal. Members of Kewaunee County in Wisconsin are protesting the permit for the expansion of Kinnard Farms because of the increase in nitrate and bacteria levels in local drinking water and soils. Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president of sustainability of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, states that organization and regulation of cattle farms is the key to success. However, the EPA suggests a switch from Holstein cows to Jersey cows, which produce half the amount of manure. The true solution may lie in the opinion of small-scale farmers such as Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys, who says we should value sustainable quality products over large profit.

Grossman, E. 2014. As Dairy Farms Grow Bigger, New Concerns About Pollution. Yale Environment 360. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/as_dairy_farms_grow_bigger_new_concerns_about_pollution/2768/

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