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CASCO – When veterinarian and dairy farmer Don Niles established his new operation with partner, John Pagel, 17 years ago, he made animal and environmental welfare a non-negotiable top priority.

Over the years, large dairy farms like Niles and Pagel’s Dairy Dream LLC have come under scrutiny from environmental groups, especially those operations located in northeast Wisconsin where cattle populations have grown, and geology creates conditions where manure can trickle through the soil and taint groundwater.

Recently, the Department of Natural Resources took a major step on Jan. 24 to toughen standards for manure spreading. The Natural Resources Board voted 7-0 to add new restrictions on spreading across eastern Wisconsin — a region prone to manure contamination of groundwater and drinking water.

The regulations — recommended by staff of the DNR — target 15 counties on the state’s eastern border, including metropolitan Milwaukee.

Achieving balance

As an owner of a farm, who will be significantly impacted by the revised standards, Niles says he understands the need for revised standards to protect the state’s most sensitive areas.

“If we are ever to achieve a balance between agriculture and the environment, I support the revised standards,” Niles said. “I am, however, going to be very interested in the exact wording of the regulations that result, to make sure that they both protect the environment and allow for rational, conscientious land use practices.”

The requirements include a ban on manure spreading on land with 2 feet or less of top soil over bedrock. In these counties, bedrock can be riddled with cracks and fissures.

Also, the rules would limit spreading practices in areas with 20 feet or less of soil. Other restrictions include a ban on spreading within 250 feet of a private well or 1,000 feet of a municipal water system.

The brunt of the regulations would fall on the state’s largest farms — those with 700 or more adult cattle. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, would be required to comply with the regulations through their wastewater permit, which must be renewed every five years.

Many of those large dairy operations are located in Kewaunee and southern Door county, where two years ago Niles and other farmers created a farmer-led coalition to protect and improve water quality. The organization, Peninsula Pride Farms (PPF) has driven significant awareness, collaboration and innovation in conservation efforts since its launch in 2016.

“When we started out, we wanted to provide a face to represent farmers in the area and we wanted to prove to the community that we care about conservation efforts,” Niles, president of PPF, told more than 100 farmers, community members and business representatives attending the group’s second annual conference and member meeting in Luxemburg earlier this year.

Niles said PPF—representing farms of all sizes, from herds of 60 to 6000 cows, and crop farms as well—has a dual focus of protecting both ground water and surface water through several initiatives.

Protecting ground water

In terms of protecting ground water, Niles says the group is working with the local medical community to determine which specific pathogens of interest PPF should concern themselves with in protecting ground water.

Additionally, PPF is collaborating with Diamond V Mills to study the effects of a supplemental yeast product that can be fed to dairy cows, with the intended benefit of significantly reducing pathogens in manure.

Seven members of the group are working cooperatively with UW Discovery Farms in a study to monitor various land use practices and the resulting levels of nitrogen that can be found in the tile water discharge. The resulting information will serve as a proxy for determining how much nitrogen could be penetrating the aquifer.

“We are also proud to be part of the prestigious Natural Resource Conservation Service Demonstration Farm project,” Niles said. “Four of our member farms are active in this project, studying protective technologies and practices to protect both surface and ground water.”

Collaboration key

Niles says collaboration is key in moving towards a solution.

“One of the earliest changes we have noted is how the barriers and walls between farmers and regulatory agencies tend to come down when we are all collaboratively working to achieve the same end,” Niles said.

Despite sharp divisions for years between environmental groups and farm organizations, both sides attending the January meeting offered qualified support.

Conservation groups called the rules “modest,” “reasonable” and a “good first step” but called for tougher standards in the future. Other groups asked the DNR to expand stricter spreading requirements in other areas of the state, including southwestern Wisconsin, which has similar geological characteristics.

The regulations are now in the hands of Governor Scott Walker and then move on to the Legislature. Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, whose district has real estate highly vulnerable to groundwater pollution, said he hopes lawmakers will not reject the rules.

“No one thinks it’s perfect, but with the ag and conservation community on the same page, that’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

Niles says PFF is committed to one central vision: That clean, safe water and a thriving agricultural community can happily co-exist on the Door County peninsula.

“Although we have enunciated this as our own vision, I think there would be many areas in the state that would echo it,” Niles said. “By giving a voice to the farming community, PPF is helping to make sure farmers have a seat at the table in environmental and land use discussions.”

Lee Bergquist of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this article.

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