Environmental groups are suing over New York’s recent deregulation of dairy farms, warning that the move will inevitably soil New York’s water sources and hurt the environment.
New York dairy farmers are enjoying a boom thanks to the growing popularity of Greek yogurt. Claiming regulations were keeping dairy producers from meeting the yogurt demand, the state Department of Environmental Conservation changed the law to exempt farms with fewer than 300 cows from designation as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Previously, farms with 200 cows or more were required to get a CAFO permit and follow stricter rules for waste management to avoid pollution.
CAFOs and their massive emissions are well established as a major contributor to climate change, as well as the single largest nitrogen polluter in the country. Rural communities downstream of these operations suffer from drinking water pollution and heightened exposure to pathogens transported by animal manure.
Without a permit, a dairy operation with 299 cows in New York can skip the waste storage, nutrient management, and stormwater detention systems larger farms must use to keep animal manure from contaminating the land or water. The DEC, in fact, exempted these farms specifically so they would not have to worry about controlling their waste output. Proponents of the deregulation argue the systems needed to meet CAFO regulations are too expensive and discourage farms from expanding their herds.
However, some farmers are skeptical of the idea that deregulation will lead to much growth. In an interview with the Watertown Daily Times, The president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau, Michael Kiechle, explained the cost of the regulation, which can reach $150,000, is negligible compared to the cost of expanding herds, which would require an investment of $1 million.
“It’s a small piece of the puzzle,” Kiechle said. “I don’t just add cows. You also have to have land. My equipment isn’t big enough, and you also have to have barn space.”
Expansion also has larger, less obvious costs. A recent USDA study found that large dairy CAFOS emit tons of methane and nitrous oxide — both of which help trap heat in the atmosphere. This large-scale farming model has played a huge part in warming the climate. If farms are encouraged to expand as basic regulations are scaled back, their emissions will help hasten more extreme weather patterns that will undoubtedly drive farmers’ production expenses far above the cost of a CAFO permit.
Dairy farmers in particular are already grappling with these new conditions. As extreme heat becomes the norm in historically temperate dairy havens on the East Coast, farmers are spending more money and energy to try to keep their herds cool. Dairy cows become particularly stressed in hot, humid weather, and produce less milk as a result. One study predicted that the heat will lead to dairy losses of over $100 million a year in some regions.
This new challenge creates yet another expense for farmers, who are already installing more cooling systems and driving up energy use in order to keep their cows happy. Before mid-size New York farmers breathe a sigh of relief over ducking the $150,000 they might have spent on CAFO regulations, they may want to consider the costs down the road.