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Gov’s plan to ease dairy cattle regulations has pros for farmers, cons for environment


Carthage dairy farmer Lee W. Bach has wanted to expand his herd size from 185 to 250 cattle for years at the family-owned farm he co-owns with brother Justin W. and father John W. But he hasn’t, because doing so would mean complying with costly state regulations to properly dispose of manure.

But those requirements — which affect farms with 200 or more cattle — are tentatively slated to be relaxed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to incite farmers like Mr. Bach to grow their operations.

The governor plans to change the enrollment criteria by raising the number of cattle farmers can own before they enroll as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which require them to develop plans for controlling runoff from manure that can pose a risk to the environment. The threshold at which regulations would kick in would be increased from 200 to 299 cattle under the plan, which was introduced by the governor at the state yogurt summit in August as a way to buoy milk production statewide.

But while the plan would encourage farmers like Mr. Bach to expand, environmental groups that oppose it say large amounts of manure produced by such farms would no longer be properly managed, contaminating bodies of water and posing a risk to wildlife.

By contrast, some sources contend CAFO regulations have prevented numerous medium-sized farms from expanding.

The program requires farmers to add storage facilities and lagoons for holding manure during the winter, along with hiring a certified planner to develop a management plan for controlling waste and conduct annual inspections. Mr. Bach said he’d likely need to build a concrete storage facility to house manure during the winter months to comply with the program, costing him about $100,000.

“It’s keeping me from going to the 200 to 300 cattle range because of costs of the manure system,” said Mr. Bach, who distributes the manure in his fields,“I would have to have manure storage and store it on the farm for a specific period of time, maybe all winter long” depending on the plan.

If Gov. Cuomo’s plan took effect, though, he’d increase his herd size to about 250 cattle right away.

“Adding 30 cows would make me about $15,000 to $20,000 a month after bills,” he said.

Even so, undoing the requirements for these farms could pose a major environmental and health risk by contaminating bodies of water located near farmland, said Katherine R. Nadeau, director of water and natural resources for the Environmental Advocates of New York. Ms. Nadeau serves on an advisory committee with other stakeholders for the state’s dairy industry to guide the state Department of Environmental Conservation when it proposes changes to the CAFO program.

Ms. Nadeau would like the state to explore other ways to offer farmers assistance without rolling back CAFO regulations. The state is now developing an environmental plan to implement the reform, she said, but is also considering alternatives to the plan before pushing it forward for approval.

“When you get rid of that threshold, you’re also getting rid of requirements to have programs to manage manure on farms,” she said. “This would open up an entire threshold of farms that won’t have to have this.”

When manure enters a body of water, she said, its high nutrient level is a detriment to fish, plants and wildlife. “If you get enough in the water, it’s going to kill plants and animals and put waterways at risk,” she said.

On the other hand, groups such as the New York Farm Bureau and Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy program see the governor’s plan as a catalyst to increase milk production. Karl J. Czymmek, senior extension associate for Cornell Pro-Dairy, said some 800 dairy farms across the state have herd sizes from 100 to 199 cattle.

“I have had conversations with farmers in the north country and elsewhere, and farms with maybe 180 cows have the management potential to grow, but there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear of the unknown in crossing into the CAFO program,” he said. “These are farms that are well managed and not pollution nightmares.”

Mr. Czymmek recently completed a joint research project with the Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange Program that looked at the financial implications of enrolling in the CAFO program for a hypothetical dairy farm that increased its herd from 190 to 290 cattle.

The study concluded the farm would be saddled with debt for the expansion of a barn ($180,000) and cows ($202,500).

And to comply with regulations, it would incur an estimated $162,000 in expenses for the first year, including the installation of manure storage equipment and hiring a certified planner. Though the farm’s annual revenue would jump from $845,278 to $1,235,618 from the dairy operation, expenses would likely increase at a proportional rate. Additionally, the farm would need to take out a loan to finance $544,500 in debt for the herd expansion and to comply with regulations.

Its annual cash margin would drop from $35,991 to $13,395.

“It makes it tough to bite all of that off at once,” Mr. Czymmek said of the regulations for such farms. “Giving farmers time to digest the (regulations) as they expand through that range is a critical piece. We can find a balanced way forward that protects the environment as well as helps farms to grow.”

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