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Dairy farming goes green(er)

Hall’s Trueloves place emphasis on conservation

POSTED: May 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Cows walk around Wednesday morning on the Truelove's dairy farm.

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Are cows and conservation mutually exclusive?

Some environmentalists are quick to blame livestock farming when streams are found to be contaminated with fecal bacteria. But cattle farmers say when sustainable practices are followed, the ecological impact is minimal.

"Farmers have always been conservationists," said Dixie Truelove, who, along with her brother, Jerry, keeps about 150 dairy cows on her family’s 300-acre property near Clermont. "Obviously, we live where we work, so we want to use the safest practices possible."

The Trueloves have tried to be good stewards of the land ever since their farm was founded in the 1950s. But back then, conservation was optional. Now, there are state laws that regulate just about everything a farmer does.

"You can’t pollute. That’s why we have these rules," said Vernon Jones, a nutrient management specialist with the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

He said the Georgia Environmental Protection Division pays the agriculture department to inspect farms and make sure they’re following soil and water regulations.

"We (at Agriculture) have no enforcement authority," Jones said. "But if we see a violation, we call in the EPD."

"Nutrient management" is the government’s term for manure disposal. The goal is to prevent livestock waste from getting into streams.

Jones said farms that have more than 200 head of dairy cattle or 300 head of beef cattle are required to have a permit from the EPD. In order to get the permit, they have to submit a nutrient management plan.

The Trueloves have gone through training classes to become certified in nutrient management. Dixie Truelove said knowing the best management practices helps her to be a better farmer.

"We apply liquid (manure) waste to one of our fields as fertilizer, and we spread the solids on pasture," Truelove said. "It has to be placed very far away from any creeks. The EPD does check that."

Like all cattle farmers, Truelove is required to wash manure out of her barn and collect it in a lagoon, where the solid material gradually separates from the liquid.

"(The agriculture department) inspects our wells and lagoons," she said. "If we flunk inspections, we cannot sell our milk."

Lane Ely, a professor of animal and dairy science at the University of Georgia, said the use of manure as fertilizer has been one of the major benefits of livestock farming.

"It does not cause runoff as long as you don’t over-apply," he said.

Ely said North Georgia’s clay soil is notoriously deficient in the nutrients that help crops grow. But studies show that the soil’s water-holding capacity can be improved by about 20 percent if manure is applied.

"That’s because manure has so much organic material," he said.

Ely said the average dairy cow produces about 75 pounds of manure a day, though only about 20 pounds of that is solids.

Aside from wastewater runoff, the major environmental concern with cattle farming is erosion. Sometimes cows that are allowed free run of the property can cause damage by trampling through creeks.

Truelove said there are ways to prevent that from happening.

"You’ve got to have enough land space to make grazing work," she said. "(At our farm) we don’t graze. We do let (the cows) out to pasture just so they can get outside. But we plant 180 acres of corn so they’ll have food throughout the year."

Ely said that’s the case at most of Georgia’s 270 dairy farms.

"Typically the cows are in the barn most of the time, and they’re fed silage or hay," he said.

Truelove said after the corn is harvested in the fall, "we make sure there is some type of cover crop so that when the winter rains come, the soil won’t wash off."

With Georgia still in a drought, water conservation is also an issue. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that cows drink a lot of water. Each animal needs 30 to 40 gallons per day.

But farms typically draw their water from wells and do not affect the municipal supply. "And many farms are using recycled water to clean their barns," Ely said.

There’s one environmental problem that no one could have anticipated back when the Trueloves started their farm. Scientists now believe that ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cattle and sheep may be contributing to global climate change because they emit methane, a major greenhouse gas.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cattle account for about 20 percent of total methane emissions in the United States.

However, the EPA says the majority of that methane comes from beef cattle. Dairy cows comprise only about 23 percent of those emissions, because dairy farming is much more efficient than beef production.

Ely said back in the 1950s, Georgia had about 20 times more dairy farms than it does now, but the ones that still exist are intensively managed.

"We probably produce as much milk now as we did then," he said.



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