Agriculture

Dairy group engages labs to help farms comply with environmental regulations and their costs

Pollution from manure is the reason dairies are required to check samples from lagoons, well water and feed crops.  four labs will collect the samples.
Pollution from manure is the reason dairies are required to check samples from lagoons, well water and feed crops. four labs will collect the samples. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Dairy farmers do more these days than fill tanks with milk bound for processors.

They send samples of other liquids, such as storm runoff on their land, to laboratories as part of an effort to prevent pollution from cow manure.

Doing this under newly tightened rules is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year per farm, so Western United Dairymen has stepped in to help. The Modesto-based group is providing centralized services that could sharply reduce the costs.

"It's a full-time job to try to figure out this stuff, and that's why you rely on someone you trust," said Jack Hoekstra, a dairyman in the Oakdale area. He said he likely will sign up for the services.

About 50 of the Central Valley's 1,600 or so dairy farmers have done so in the two weeks since sign-ups began, said Michael Marsh, the group's chief executive officer.

Dairy farms for years were exempt from many regulations enforced by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

It's not that they were free to pollute. Discharging manure-laden water into a stream or aquifer could bring heavy penalties. But they did not have to do the constant testing that is now required.

Farmers will have to frequently sample their lagoons, where manure is held temporarily, so regulators know their chemical makeup. They will have to test the wells that irrigate the crops and supply their homes.

They will even have to test the feed crops that they fertilize with the manure, to see how much of the nitrogen and other components are being taken up safely into the plant tissue.

"We'll be pretty much testing everything in the whole circle of how a dairy operates," said Josh Huot, a chemist at Denele Agri-Link Analytic Laboratories in Turlock.

It is one of four labs that Western United Dairymen has recruited to do testing in the new program. Two engineering firms also take part.

The group in September launched Western United Environmental Services, a nonprofit entity, to oversee the effort throughout the Central Valley. It has hired five technicians and an office manager.

Services below the market price

The technicians will be able to collect samples from several farms on each trip, an example of the economy of scale, Marsh said.

"We've priced the services to be significantly below the market," he said.

The water board has estimated that the new rules will cost a typical farm $45,000 to $60,000 in the first year and $30,000 to $40,000 per year after that. Marsh said the savings from his group's program are not yet known, but they likely will be substantial.

Hoekstra said something has to be done to control the cost of environmental regulations, or the dairy industry will leave California.

The costs could go beyond testing and record-keeping. If a farm has a problem with manure handling, it might have to build a better lagoon or buy more land for spreading the stuff onto feed crops.

Marsh said the water costs come at a time of increasing costs for feed and fuel and a drop in milk prices from their record highs in 2007.

Many dairy farmers already were using labs for other reasons, said Joe Mullinax, co-owner of the Turlock lab. They include assessing the nutritional content of hay and other feed so the animals get just what they need to thrive.

"They've got to grow the crop to feed these cows, so they were already trying to do the right thing," he said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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