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Dairy Innovation Hub researchers to study effects of manure management regulation in WI

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing a study on how manure regulations are written and enforced across Wisconsin.

Two Dairy Innovation Hub researchers are launching a study to learn about how manure management regulations are implemented and enforced across Wisconsin – and they want farmers' input.

Jeremy Foltz, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Marin Skidmore, a post-doctoral research associate in the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, are looking at the different ways manure regulations at both the state and county levels are being handled, how it effects water quality and its costs to farmers. The two spoke on a recent Dairy Stream podcast episode, hosted by Mike Austin and producby Edge Dairy Cooperative and Dairy Business Association.

While the study is still in its early stages, Skidmore said farmers can reach out to them over the Hub website to offer words on their experiences with how manure regulations are enforced in their area and the costs and benefits of the regulations, as well as how the regulations affect water quality.

The project is under a 2-year grant and its initial findings will be shared at the Dairy Summit, a free virtual conference hosted by the Hub on Nov. 18 this year. Skidmore said her through her research, they've already found that many manure laws and ordinances across the state are much more complicated than farmers may realize, and they've had to pull in help from legal students to help understand the full letter of the law.

"We were told by some people that the rules are the same throughout the state, and they're really not complicated and every farmer knows that," Skidmore said. "What we're seeing so far is that they really are complicated, and there are differences in how the regulations are both written and enforced throughout the state."

Foltz said the study is important because the statewide debate surrounding manure regulations is missing facts central to the core arguments, and he hopes this scientific look at the issue will help fill the gaps. He said there's no one-size-fits-all solution because the topography, soil quality and water quality differ from region to region, requiring different needs at the regulation level.

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"If all of Wisconsin were all the same, this research would be really easy to do, and probably would have long since been done before," Foltz said. "But these differences in soil and slopes and the water bodies are going to help us understand how these different types of topographical features matter to the transport of nutrients, and ultimately, to the kinds of regulations that might make sense."

Skidmore noted that historically, counties can choose which parts of the state code to enforce and which to leave to the enforcement of the Department of Natural Resources because the state code is not tailored enough to a local level that answers for regional differences. However, she said some legislators are already working on an update to the state code that would make it more customizable for the needs of each county's local makeup. 

There are different sides to the story, Foltz said, and he hopes this project will help provide a more centrist look at the issue since he said many people may be operating on ideological views without proper context. He said the study will also help farmers find viable economic solutions in manure regulations without sacrificing the environment.

"We want to figure out what works and how much it works, because it's not one thing works and another thing just doesn't work," Foltz said. "In order to understand those tradeoffs, you need some numbers ... both environmental and economic numbers. And our goal is to be able to provide that to the policymakers."