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One Michigan county tells the story of a nation plagued by water pollution

Sep 24, 2020
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Farms housing thousands of animals are one of several sources contaminating the Pine River and dividing a mid-Michigan community.

Murray Borrello, wearing khakis and a loose-fitting brown button-up, walked down a backroad during the summer of 2019 listening to the sounds of the woods. Water from the Pine River flowed slowly beneath him as he looked out over a bridge.

“Oh, I hear a frog,” the Alma College geology and environmental studies professor said. “That’s a good sign.” 

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Environmental groups are supporting a permit that further restricts spreading animal manure on farm fields.

Livestock farmers and the Michigan Farm Bureau are suing the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to stop changes in the general operating permit for Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Now environmental groups are siding with the agency to enforce the stricter regulations, seeking to legally intervene.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Farm groups are using a two-pronged approach to stop the state from changing the rules for spreading manure. The Michigan Farm Bureau, large livestock farmers (Confined Animal Feeding Operations CAFOs), and several farm groups are suing the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). The same groups in May appealed changes to pollution permits dealing with spreading livestock manure on farm fields.

Drowning in manure

May 25, 2017
Free Use Photos / Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

I want to warn you that today, I’m going to be talking about poop. Specifically, more than 3.3 billion gallons of it a year, all of it produced in Michigan by what are euphemistically called “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” or CAFOs.

Many of us call them “Factory Farms” instead. They are places where animals are crowded in what are anything but humane conditions to be fattened as quickly as possible for slaughter, or if they are cows, drained of their milk.

But beyond animal cruelty, what I’m concerned about is our drinking water. Three years ago, toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie left the water unsafe to drink for a few days.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Large animal farms will no longer be allowed to give or sell excess manure to smaller farms between the months of January and March.

Brad Wurfel is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  He says the larger farms know not to do this, but sometimes the smaller farms will spread the manure on frozen, snow-covered fields.