Manure on field caused trout deaths

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Mar 7, 2005
by WLJ
—Incident Comes Months After River Cleanup
Manure spread on a frozen field is blamed for killing dozens of brown trout in southern Wisconsin—just two weeks before public hearings start on proposed new rules that would streamline the process for expanding livestock farms in the state.
The West Branch of the Sugar River, near Mount Horeb in Dane County, had been removed last October from a federal government list of impaired waters after more than $900,000 in state and federal grants and thousands of volunteer hours turned a shallow, muddy stream into prime trout habitat.
But officials said Monday that the stream was damaged because a farmer last week spread liquid cow manure on an icy field.
A thaw Friday sent the waste running into the stream, said Michael Sorge, a water resources specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources who was on the scene. He said the trout were killed by ammonia from the manure.
By late Monday, workers with the DNR had recovered more than 100 dead trout, some as long as 19 inches.
DNR fish biologist Kurt Welke said many other dead fish remain on the stream bottom or stuck under the banks. He added that much of the manure is still on the frozen ground and could flow toward the stream with another thaw.
“If there is a gradual warmup in temperature, then there may be a chronic but lesser amount of manure discharging to the river,” he said. “A quick jump in temperature may spell trouble in that a major slug could impact the river.”
Over the weekend, workers built earthen berms in the field to hold back the manure. Sorge said heavy construction equipment was used Monday to break through the frozen surface of the field and allow the manure to soak into the soil.
“One landowner making a poor decision may have undone 30 years of work in this watershed,” said Frank Fetter, who serves as executive director of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association.
According to DNR conservation warden David Wood, the farmer, whose name was not released, may have violated a law against polluting waterways. He said a violator could be subject to a fine of about $430 and restitution costs of about $26 per trout.
Welke said the farmer was being cooperative in the cleanup and was among landowners who worked to restore the stream.
He said the spill should focus attention on the problem of farmers spreading manure on frozen ground—a legal practice that nonetheless is a big environmental problem.
“It seems to me that its time to have a frank discussion between the agricultural community and the regulatory community about certain practices that have long been viewed as normal,” he said. “We cannot winter-spread manure.”
He suggested that alternatives be developed, such as providing a regional manure digester for farmers to use in winter.
“I would certainly hope that the high profile of this raises the eyebrows of my administrators and also of the legislative community,” Welke said.
State agriculture officials scheduled hearings in six cities this month—starting with a hearing in Jefferson March 14—on proposed rules implementing a new law on expansion of livestock farms and management of manure.
The proposed rules would affect farms with 500 or more “animal units,” or about 350 or more milk cows or the equivalent.
The rules “will provide producers with greater predictability when they’re making decisions about modernizing dairy operations,” said Rod Nilsestuen, state agriculture secretary.
“The livestock siting law strikes a balance between growing animal agriculture, protecting the environment, and respecting local decision-making,” he said. — WLJ