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Great Lakes Article:

Fertilizer may harm water
Macomb warns farmers of the risks of overusing manure

By Mike Wowk /
Article courtesy of The Detroit News

November 13, 2001


Requirements
   * The Federal Clean Water Act mandates that manure and any associated nutrients must not affect surface waters.
   * Michigan guidelines state that manure should not be applied to soils within 150 feet of surface waters or to areas subject to flooding unless the manure is immediately absorbed into the soils or conservation policies are used to protect against runoff and erosion.
   
Math skills
   Livestock farming is more than just feeding and tending the animals. The following is an excerpt from a Michigan State University Extension newsletter on manure management:
   "Assume you drive 160 rods across a field. (160) times 16.6 feet per rod equals 2,656 feet driven. You measure the width of (liquid) manure application to be about 12 feet. Twelve times 2,656 equals 31,872 square feet. Divided by 43,560 square feet (one acre) equals 0.73 acre. Assume the (manure) tank holds 2,800 gallons. Divide by 0.73 of an acre. (That) calculates out to an application rate of 3,836 gallons per acre."


   MACOMB TOWNSHIP -- Third-generation dairy farmer Tom Schramm doesn't like chemical fertilizers.
   "Manure is better because it's higher in nutrients," he said.
   His 70 dairy cows produce about 30 cubic yards of manure each day on the Macomb Township farm. He uses it on alfalfa and other feed crops grown for his cattle.
   Schramm's mother, May, said the family makes sure to keep the manure from leaking into the water supply.
   "The public's concern would be if we spread manure by the river near the farm," said May Schramm, 54. "We have enough ground that we are able to spread it and not cause a problem."
   The Michigan State University Extension office in Macomb County is trying to alert farmers of the potential dangers to humans if manure and fertilizer get into the water supply. The Extension offers workshops to farmers, and livestock and horse owners about how to best manage and dispose of manure.
   Environmental advocates, like Doug Martz, head of the Macomb Water Quality Board, have long argued that farm animal waste and fertilizer runoff are partly to blame for the high E. coli bacteria levels in streams and other tributaries leading to Lake St. Clair. Those high levels have forced Macomb County health officials to periodically close beaches along Lake St. Clair and at Stony Creek Metropark.
   The bacteria can cause skin irritations if humans come in contact with it, and other illnesses if swallowed.
   There's a science to knowing how much manure to spread over how many acres, according to Hannah Stevens of the MSU Extension office in Clinton Township. The calculations involve measuring the types and amounts of nutrients, all the while being careful not to pollute any nearby lakes or streams.
   And the ecological implications of manure management are becoming more important as the federal government, through its Environmental Protection Agency, now is starting to take an interest in the issue, Stevens said.
   "So far, there are no federal regulations on manure disposal, and we'd prefer to keep it that way," she said. "We think we can do a better job at the state level because we're familiar" with local soils, waters and farming practices.
   
Guidelines
   Michigan livestock owners are encouraged to comply with the state's Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices for Manure Management and Utilization. Farmers and others who follow those guidelines will have some legal protection in case someone files a nuisance complaint against them with the state's agriculture department.
   Some of the guidelines state:
   * All fields should be sampled at least once every three years, and the soils tested to determine where manure nutrients could best be utilized.
   * Follow fertilizer recommendations to determine the total nutrient needs for crops to be grown on each field that could have manure applied.
   * Analyze the manure for percentage of dry matter, and also for ammonium, nitrogen, potassium and other substances.
   * Manure should be uniformly applied.
   Years ago, when most farms were self-contained economic units, farmers practiced some form of manure management, Stevens said. "But as the farms have become more specialized, many of them have lost the ability to handle it."
   And then there are the agricultural newcomers, like former urban dwellers who move to the country and buy a horse or two.
   "These are what I call the hobbyists," Stevens said. "Sometimes, the manure produced by the horses becomes a nuisance to the neighbors."


   
Avoiding damage
   For most Macomb County farmers and livestock owners, it's not a question of using manure vs. chemical fertilizers. The manure is strictly a supplement, and then only for livestock feed crops, like alfalfa or hay, Stevens said.
   No environmental damage would result if manure is used properly. "But it can be overused. Also, there are potential bacteriological pathogens," Stevens said.
   This is where water-quality experts are concerned.
   "If there is a high-nutrient level in manure that gets into (a lake or stream), the bacteria in there will have a feeding frenzy," said Jessica Opfer of the Clinton River Watershed Council.
   "That could lead to increased growth of plants and algae, and that would have an affect on the fish."
   E. coli bacteria is commonly found in all animal wastes, including that from humans. When that bacteria finds its way into a waterway, there are potential health risks to humans as well, Opfer said.
   "Manure management is definitely a big issue (in water quality)," she said. "There's been much discussion (among environmentalists) about large livestock operations and how they handle their manure."

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