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Manure Maneuver 

North Coast diary farmers are knee-deep in new runoff regulations

A herd of Holsteins, roused from their carefree ruminations, stand one by one and saunter up to the wire fence on the edge of a dirt road in the Arcata bottoms. The black-and-white cows whiff the air, bat their luxurious eyelashes and flick their ears, bouncing numbered yellow earrings. Their swiveling jaws creak quietly.  

The tall grass along the fence rustles in the breeze, and the sound of the ocean carries over the flat pastureland. One charmer rests her diamond-spotted head on her neighbor's back. So languid. So peaceful. She lifts her tail in a graceful arch, and poops. Splat. Splat. Splat.

Cows can't control themselves. They just go. Here in Humboldt, most of the pooping happens out in the pasture. That's fine, because the grass likes the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that the poop contains. But when ol' Bessie poops in the barn, in the milking parlor, or on any other paved area, the farmer needs to keep an eye on the pile, lest it find its way into a puddle, stream or irrigation ditch.

In years past, it was farmers' responsibility, and ultimately their choice, to keep the waterways dung-free. Clean water meant a clean conscience. Starting this year, however, the authorities are stepping in with a new program that aims to stamp out any wayward crap.

Both farmers and regulators agree that the new rules, which force dairy farmers to document their manure-management and possibly make corrections in the field, aren't likely to reduce pollution too much. By most accounts, local dairies are already doing a pretty good job keeping those pies in line.

For the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the new runoff regulations were a legal necessity. All of California's other water boards already had runoff oversight programs in place, and the new program will bring the North Coast into compliance with both state and federal clean water laws.

In the eyes of many local dairy farmers, though, the new regulations are anything but necessary. They say that they're already self-regulating, and that the new program will mostly just mean more paperwork, more time away from the field, and more costs in a business where profit margins are already thin as skim milk.  

Denver Nelson trudges out of his office, past the barn, and stops in front of a wire. It's electric. "Don't touch it," he says, gravel-voiced. Then he changes his mind. He's touched it before, he says. "It's not a big deal. Go ahead and touch it." (No, thanks.)

Nelson is here on the family farm outside of Ferndale. He's gentleman farmer, he says. A retiree and member of the county Planning Commission, Nelson owns the land, but his son-in-law actually runs things. He stops by when he's feeling like it or when his family needs his help.

To Nelson's left is a small fenced area with a dozen calves, lounging on woodchips or in plastic cow kennels. On his right is another fenced area with a dozen full-grown cows. They're Jerseys, relatively small cows -- usually between 800 and 1,000 pounds, compared to 1,500 pound Holsteins -- but the milk they produce is rich in butterfat, making it a good base for cheese or ice cream. They're shaped like drunken rectangles, and they're the color of Timberland boots. The sound when they pull up mouthfuls of grass is like a brush dragged through frizzy hair.

In front of Nelson, over the electric wire, is a dirt road that curves a half-mile or so out along the edge of the pasture. It's fenced on both sides, and at the far end is a gate. A couple hundred cows are gathered around the gate, and when an employee on an ATV opens it, they meander onto the road.

They've been out in the field for 12 hours, and they want to be milked, Nelson says. They spend most of their time in the pasture, he says, often as much as 350 days a year, more than double the 120 days required by federal law to qualify as an organic dairy.

"This area is the ideal pastureland," Nelson says, gesturing out across the Eel River Valley. The climate, the rich river soil, and the high rainfall make the land some of the most productive in the country. His dairy has around 500 cows on more than 220 acres, or around two cows per acre --- far less than the land could support, he says.

Like on many local dairies, the cows on this farm are rotated among fields. Once one field is grazed out, the cows move on to the next. The farmers mow the first field to even it out, then, depending upon the time of year, either water it or spray it with manure-water slurry. After that they let the grass grow for at least a couple weeks before allowing the cows back on it.

The bovine caravan approaches, dragging a cloud of dust. It's a disorderly bunch. Taken by a whim, some cows stop for a bite of grass along the fence, causing the whole train to stop. Others decide to turn against traffic, motivation unknown. One sidles up behind a fellow she-cow and jumps on for a quick hump. "That's how you know they need to be bred," Nelson says, pointing to the unperturbed humpee.

The cow in front reaches Nelson and halts, staring at him. He stares back. "They're lovely creatures," he says. The cow turns its googly gaze and continues toward the barn and the milking parlor, pushed onward by the cows behind.

Most of the contaminated water on the farm comes from the barn and milking complex. The manure that cows leave in the barn while en route to the milking parlor gets skid-steered into a pit at the end of the building. The contents of the poop-pit, and the water used to clean the milking parlor and the milk-holding tank are both pumped into a million-gallon concrete tank outside.

The reason the concrete tank is so big, Nelson says, is because it needs to be able to hold four months' worth of manure and contaminated water. If the dairy sprayed the slurry on the field during the rainy season, when the ground is already saturated, then it would be more likely to run off into nearby surface water. Plus, because the manure-water is the only fertilizer that the organic dairy uses, applying it during the wet season would be a waste of nutrients, and a waste of money.

Across the field is a yellow pump with two wheels and a spool of black hose. Underground lines run from the concrete tank to that pump and others scattered across the farm. From there, the hoses run out to mobile sprinklers.

Nelson points to the tank. He commissioned two artists to paint an enormous American flag its side. "This is a great country," he says.

The last of the cows trail past, and Nelson heads to the milking parlor. It's a long concrete room with rows of feed troughs along both walls. A 4-foot-wide trench runs the length of the room, dividing it in two. As cows walk down the aisles on either side of the trench, metal gates swing out and separate the cows into their own stalls, head in the trough, udders towards the trench.

The cows are in place. The pumps above the trench start to click rhythmically, tick tick tick tick ticka ticka tick, and the vacuum turns on with a howl. Two milkers hurry along the trench, attaching the pumps to each cow's four teats before moving to her neighbor. The pumps bounce slowly on the teats as if breathing -- up... down... up... down. Milk squirts into the clear bowls on the bottom of the vacuums, whirling against the sides before disappearing off through the pipes and into the holding tank.

In less than five minutes, the milking is over. The vacuums die, and the suctions drop from the teats and swing away. The cow on the end isn't quite done. The rear teat on her left side squirts a stream of milk on the floor. It pools and runs toward a drain. Nelson looks at the row of cows, now licking up the last bits of grain from their troughs. "Pretty neat, huh?" he says.

Almost everyone agrees that keeping cow poop out of the water is a good thing. In the American Midwest, where most dairies are massive and corporate-owned, with barn-bound cows, agricultural runoff has been linked to high levels of nitrates in the groundwater, which can cause birth defects. The groundwater in California's Central Valley also has unhealthy levels of nitrates, possibly because of ag runoff.

Here on the North Coast, where most dairies are small, family-owned, and pasture-based, the biggest threat from cow poop is algal blooms, said Mark Neely of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Those same nutrients that grass likes - particularly nitrogen and phosphorus - can ignite algae blooms, which can raise a waterway's pH to fish-killing levels, and starve the water of oxygen as it decomposes. Some types of algae are poisonous. At least 12 dogs have died after swimming in algae-infested Humboldt waters since 2001.

Dairies aren't the only potential causes of water pollution - runoff from logging, leaky septic systems and non-dairy agriculture all put nutrients and sediment in the water. Most of those are probably bigger polluters than dairies, say those who keep an eye on Humboldt waters. While the water quality experts seem to agree that local dairies are mostly doing a good job, they say the new regulations can't hurt.

"There are many of sources of pollution to local water, and certainly agriculture is one of those," said Andrew Orahoske, conservation director at the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). Dairies in particular are potential polluters, because of the way they concentrate manure and contaminated water, he said. He said that in the past, EPIC received more complaints about pollution from dairies, but it seems like they've collectively cleaned up their act in the last 10 years. Every once in a while though, EPIC still gets complaints, he said, and having water quality regulations on the books is a sensible step.

Fisheries biologist and Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioner Patrick Higgins concurred. Like Orahoske, he said that the dairies are much cleaner than they were a decade ago, but that more oversight is a good thing. Although farmers might feel the regulations are onerous and unnecessary, Higgins said, it's important to remember that the regulations aren't for the benefit of the dairies -- they're meant to protect public waterways.

The new regulations affect roughly 150 dairies and 50,000 cows, scattered across Del Norte, Siskyou, Mendocino, Sonoma, Marin and Humboldt counties, and will satisfy both the monitoring requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, and state dairy regulations.

Neely led the effort to create the new program, officially called (take a breath) "Water Quality Compliance Program for Dairies and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)." The program has three categories, with different permits for each. The first category is for dairies that regularly allow a significant amount of contaminated water to run into surface water. Neely said that doesn't happen at any local dairies.

The second category is for dairies that have a high risk of allowing contaminated water to run into surface water, and for dairies with more than 700 cows. Only three dairies applied for the second-level permit: Two were required to do so because they have more than 700 cows; the third has leaked contaminated water in the past.

The permit for the third category is actually a waiver. Dairies are granted a waiver if the water board deems them a negligible threat to water quality. Unlike the other two permits, dairies with a waiver permit do not pay an annual fee, which, for the most egregious polluters, can cost tens of thousands every year.

The water board hasn't finished its inspections, and the number of dairies with the second-level permit could still rise, said Neely, but the number of waiver applications indicate that local dairies think they're already doing a good job.

They probably are, he said, acknowledging that for the most part, the new regulations are more about fulfilling legal oversight requirements and less about correcting an existing public safety hazard. "We don't have any known problems that have driven the program," he said, adding, "But it may [be] a question of not knowing the problems yet."

The dairy famers have until November to give the water board their paperwork. Farmers applying under the waiver have to submit, among other things, a detailed aerial map of their dairy and a 10-page water quality plan questionnaire. The waiver also requires farmers to be ready to prevent runoff of contaminated rainwater for 24 hours during the biggest storm in a quarter-century, which for some Humboldt dairies could mean 14 inches of rain in one day.

Once the waiver application is submitted, farmers have one year to make any changes that they need to qualify for the waiver. The manure that cows leave in the field isn't as likely to enter waterways in significant quantities as is the manure slurry that gets shot out of sprinklers, or the water running straight off of concrete. Most of the water board's suggested fixes will probably address those sources of pollution. Solutions include putting up gutters to prevent clean rainwater from running onto soiled concrete, erecting roofs to prevent the rain from hitting the concrete in the first place, creating buffer zones around waterways and building bigger poop-lagoons.

Neely said that most dairy farmers already have the answers to the water board's questions either in their head or on paper, and much of the work will simply be filling in the blanks. Still, a little grumbling is to be expected, he said. "Dairymen don't like paperwork. They'd rather be out in the field feeding the cows."

Debbie Nickols and her parents, Anne and Curtis Holgersen, are seated around the dining table at the Holgersen house in Loleta. A binder, given to Nickols at a recent educational meeting, sits next to her on the table. It's full of instructional materials and forms to fill out - 3½ inches worth. She measured. To Nickols' right, Curtis Holgersen looks at a map of the family dairy with furrowed brow, marking it with a pen.

On the wall in the next room hangs a photograph of Holgersen's grandparents. They arrived here from Denmark more than 100 years ago, and started the dairy. Their son worked here his whole life, and his son, Holgersen, 67, grew up working on the dairy.

He's not happy about the new regulations. "This is like if the water board were to come into your backyard and ask you, by weight, how much crap your dog produces and exactly where it goes," he says.

His daughter pulls out a piece of paper. It's a cow poop multiplication chart. In order to figure out how many tons of manure each cow produces annually, the dairy needs to know the average number of pounds of milk the cow gives each day. There's a different set of calculations for cows that aren't giving milk.

Granted, most dogs don't produce 23 tons of crap in a year, like some of the more prodigious cows, but Nickols says they have it under control. The dairy is their backyard, she says. "We're considered stewards of the land, and we don't abuse it at all. There's no runoff."

Holgersen and Nickols head out to the farm. They walk through a church-like wooden barn built by Holgersen's grandparents 100 years ago, past a small building that holds the dairy's contaminated water, and up to the modern barn, where the cows sleep when the weather is nasty. There's some manure on the concrete floor, but not much, and it's mostly dried. They scrape it regularly with a tractor, Holgersen says.

A couple weeks ago, they volunteered to have water board inspectors come out to the farm. The inspectors didn't find any serious problems, says Nickols, but they wanted the Holgersens to move a watering trough and to install a backup concrete bumper to direct rainwater -- both unnecessary, in her opinion.

"Someone in Sacramento sees it as a potential issue, and they say, ‘Oh, you have to change it.' They're sitting in an office somewhere. They're not out here when it rains. They're not out here in the weather, feeding the cows," she says. "It's pure crap."

The regulations come at a tough time for dairies. "Most dairy farmers today are awash in red ink," said Michael Marsh, CEO of the Western United Dairymen, a trade organization that represents more than 60 percent of California dairies.

Low milk prices and high fuel and feed costs mean that this year, most dairy farmers in the state are losing money every time they milk their cows. Last year was better, Marsh said, and some dairies broke even in 2010, but 2009 brought "wholesale devastation." In the last three or four years, he said, California has lost roughly 20 percent of its dairies.

Humboldt has not been spared. In 2001, the county had more than 100 dairies, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture records. In 2009, there were roughly 80. Today, there are around 60. 

Farmers can do little to avoid the cost of fuel and feed, nor can they control the price of their product. Milk is sold from the dairy to the consumer through a network of middlemen, and prices are set by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which calculates its prices based on rates at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Currently, dairies are getting roughly $14 per 100 pounds of milk, or around $1.17 per gallon. By the time it gets to the store, that gallon costs between $3 and $4.

Despite the low milk prices, Neely said that the water board needed to go forward with the program. It had already delayed implementing the regulations for a couple years following the 2009 Humboldt Creamery scandal (see Creamgate, Feb 26, 2009). Even in a good year, he said, farmers wouldn't exactly welcome new regulations, and the water board's job is to enforce the law.

Curtis Holgersen and Debbie Nickols walk from the new barn down a path to the milking parlor. The 60-year-old wood-roofed concrete room bears little resemblance to Denver Nelson's stainless steel parlor. "This is one of the last glass lines in the county, maybe in the state," she says, pointing to a tube leading from the milking stations. If it ever broke, there'd be no replacing it.

Holgersen demonstrates the operation, pantomiming without a cow. The setup requires the milker to bend down next to the cows to hook up the vacuum pumps. It's slow, he says and hard on the knees. Hired hands do most of the milking now - he's not able to bend like he used to. He's thought about upgrading to a more modern system, but in the end couldn't afford it. 

They walk back outside. "That's where I was born and raised," Holgersen says, pointing to a beige two-story house across the dirt road from the parlor. He moved from there into the house where Debbie lives now, just a couple hundred feet away. Later, he moved next-door into his and Anne's house. His next home, he hopes, will be with God.  

The dairy will go on. Nickols left the family farm for a few years to go to veterinary school, but returned, and plans on staying. "It's in the blood," she says. "It's a rough life, it is, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."

On their way back to the house, Holgersen and his daughter walk through the long grass next to the old barn, scuffing the manure from their boots.

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