I-Team: What we know and don’t know about factory farms

I-Team: What we know and don't know about factory farms
Published: Apr. 22, 2023 at 1:21 PM EDT
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WOOD COUNTY, Ohio (WTVG) - When you think about water issues in this community, now nine years after the water crisis, algae always comes to mind.

The 13abc I-Team now taking a look at what could be a major contributor to algal blooms, but it’s not studied enough.

They go by lots of names: factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). It’s basically large livestock operations. The issue is when they have to “go” and where it goes.

It would be hard to tell from the outside but inside Wood County’s BB Land farm on Bloomdale Road in Wayne are roughly 5000 cows. It’s commonly known as a factory farm.

Vickie Askins has studied and researched these concentrated animal feeding operations.

“10 years ago nobody talked about CAFOs and manure. The public is being educated,” says the Lake Erie advocate Askins.

Her belief is the manure is the stinky part no one wants to discuss. That’s because phosphorus is a major source of the Lake Erie algae bloom, and one of the sources of the phosphorus is animal manure. Factor farms like this are believed by environmental advocates to play a major role but little data on their actual impact is available.

“It really is unknown the impact that animal manure is having on our waterways,” said Kari Gerwin, TMACOG’s Vice President of Water Quality Planning.

Like so many others, she acknowledges that not enough is done to monitor exactly what happens to the manure when it leaves these farms.

“Now we don’t know the percentage that ends up in our waterways. We don’t know exactly how fast these nutrients get into our waterways and then the Maumee River and then into Lake Erie,” said Gerwin.

Manure, which ends up highly liquefied at these farms, does not pour directly into waterways. The manure is mainly spread on farm fields. If too much is spread, or maybe the ground is frozen it goes right into the drain tiles. From the tiles, it goes to the ditches. Ditches flow to streams and rivers. Streams and rivers end up in Lake Erie.

“All the nutrients and pollutants that come with manure go rather quickly into our waterways,” said Gerwin.

There’s no monitoring of individual farm fields and their manure runoff. Which would be a big and costly undertaking with some drains 20-50 feet apart. There is significant monitoring of what are called point sources like water treatment and sewage plants but not fields.

“They can say that they’re not going to discharge, but anytime you put manure on a tiled field in Wood County and we get a rain, it’s probably going to out the tiles,” said Askins.

How much these farms produce is a bit of a moving target too. The I-Team obtained the last six permits for BB Land that date back to 2006. Every few years the estimate of how much manure a cow produces changes.

In 2006 a dry cow produced 13.6 gallons daily. In 2016 it’s 6.14 gallons. In 2021 it’s 10.06 gallons daily.

Their permits are approved by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Not the Environmental Protection Agency. Once the manure leaves this property, exactly how it is applied on that farm field is not monitored.

“They’re ignoring the biggest problem because if you don’t know where they’re putting it, then how can they figure out what part of the load it’s coming from the manure,” said Askins.

Here’s another acronym that people may want to learn soon: TMDL. That is the total maximum daily load. That will look at how many nutrients go into those streams and ditches and eventually the lake.

Ohio’s EPA is working on one, it should be done this summer. That is when we see how much monitoring in that plan will focus on farm fields and manure.

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