Manure report draws questions, concerns

Colleen Kottke Associate Editor
Now Media Group


Panelists on the Wisconsin Manure Irrigation Workgroup fielded a host of questions during a follow-up webinar regarding information contained in the 80-page report released a little over a month ago.

The UW-Madison/UW-Extension-led group was tasked with assessing the potential pros and cons associated with manure irrigation, and released its final report on April 14 following a webinar presentation about the report's findings. This gave the general public four weeks to digest the contents of the tome and submit questions.

The group of panelists took questions on the potential impact of airborne pathogens on immunosupressed citizens, the narrow focus of health impacts, failure of the DNR to follow-up on manure application violations, and the group's alleged refusal to hold a public hearing on the report and the report's appearance of kowtowing to CAFOs.

'Our audiences are broadly state and local officials, interested stakeholders, and producers who wanted to know more about this issue, and we felt the most effective way to get that information in the hands of stakeholders was to make the document available and introduce it during a webinar,' said Manure Irrigation Workgroup member and UW-Madison Urban Planning Professor Ken Genskow. 'We also made it clear throughout the three year process that our workgroup has no authority to set policy. We have an authority on insights on the topic, but we wanted to make it clear that the decisions about these issues and how they play out locally and across the state are going to be made by state and local officials and appointed officials.'

Local level

Genskow believes that the public dialogue will most effectively happen around local discussion.

'We hope that there are continued local discussions. This was one of the reasons we suggested a follow-up step is to reconvene some kind of a statewide discussion about this next year once we get a better sense on how local communities and interested stakeholders use the report.'

Genskow said the report is a comprehensive resource for stakeholders.

'People are going to use this report for a lot of different purposes. I think those who have skepticism about the practices are going to find a lot in the report to reinforce some of that skepticism,' Genskow said. 'We certainly made it clear throughout that there are some things science hasn't yet produced answers for. And we expect continued good science in the future will shed more light on those questions.'

Instead, the study focused on broad set of issues that address odor, water quality concerns and pathogen drift.

Workgroup member and report co-editor, Becky Larson, UW-Madison assistant professor of biological systems engineering and UW-Extension biological waste specialist, said some questions submitted to the panel demonstrate a 'lack of understanding' surrounding the practice of manure applications.

'Every piece manure that you produce has to be disposed of. While there are some technologies that can help us mitigate some environmental risks or human health or other risks we associate with manure, all of it has to be land applied,' Larson said. 'Hopefully you use the practice that is best for the site conditions you experience. There are risks and trade-offs associated with every type of application and this document highlights what these tradeoffs are.'

While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) is a regulatory agency that has oversight of Nutrient Management Plans for the state's largest farms, WDNR Water Resources Management Specialist Andrew Craig says the agency does its best to make sure those businesses are following the law regarding the handling of manure.

'We don't have resources to inspect every field every time a manure application happens in Wisconsin, but we do have ability to respond when those plans are not being followed. In fact, we've done several audits on CAFOs in Kewaunee and Door County,' Craig said.


Group members felt there were some areas that the study was unable to address including the limitation on pathogens. In this study, researchers used surrogate organisms.

'We would have loved to have more farms volunteer for the study and (USDA-ARS, research microbiologist) Mark Borchardt tried to encourage multiple farmers to participate,' said Larson, adding that only three farms volunteered.

Borchardt said having more types of farms and more types of manure would have made the study better.

'As it was, we did have to use a surrogate pathogen ratio approach because the farms (in the study) were relatively clean,' Borchardt said.

On the upside, the workgroup was a melting pot of expertise and viewpoints, Larson said. The group was composed of scientists, public health specialists, state agency experts, farmers, conservationists and others that spent over two years gathering and reviewing scientific information on the practice and developing the report.

'As a workgroup, I think its beneficial to have this many different voices. These types of issues really require in-depth knowledge that one person could attempt to cover on their own,' Larson said. 'I think as a workgroup we put in a lot of effort to dig through a lot information and produced a document that hopefully saves a lot of people the time from having to amass that information as well as vet it and go through the many perspectives you need.'

Genskow hopes that stakeholders will find the report a useful resource to help guide them with future decisions.

'The report, webinars, research documents are all on our website for the public to view and use,' Genskow said. 'And a number of us are willing to make ourselves available for local discussions around this issue as those unfold.'

The report and the webinar are available for viewing online at