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January 11, 2010     Post 18
dead birds and manure

What connections might there be between a dead loon and a gallon of milk? More than you might think. What we do on land affects the water and life of the lake. One thing we're doing at an increasing rate is concentrating the production of meat and milk on fewer larger farms. There are a number of factors pushing the bigger is better trend- the topic is probably a whole book. Global politics, export policy, government subsidies, demographic trends, and lots more is behind it. The result however, is more animals and animal waste in less space. “Concentrated or Confined Animal Feeding Operation” ( CAFO) is another name for factory farming. Whatever you callit, the waste from 3000 diary cows in one spot is equal to that of a sizable city. But the farm waste is not treated in any way. An when that untreated waste is applied as liquid manure to farm fields as fertilizer, some of its nutrients will likely find their way into creeks and streams.

Big farms have “manure management plans” and ( this is not BS) also have staffers who are manure managers. But if the fertilizer is applied as liquid when the ground is frozen or before a rain or when the plants aren't growing, all of which apparently is accepted and legal “manure management” part of it is likely to end up in Port Bay or Sodus Bay.

Those nutrients eventually reside in the open lake where they help plants grow in shallow sunlit water near shore. One plant well known to beach combers is the filamentous algae Cladophora that grows on rocks. We used to call it seaweed when we plucked up a wad and threw it at our sister fifty years ago when picnicking by the lake. When a mid summer storm whips up the waves, the rough water rips the stuff up and washes it onto the beach where it rots and stinks. The waves also wash some of the dead algae offshore where it forms thick mats of gray sludge on the bottom.

methane 'eruption' near shore

The zebra mussels arrived here about 20 years ago. They promptly went about reproducing and filtering the lake waters for food. Now there are so many mussels the water is as clear as it probably was a hundred year ago. Sunlight reaches far deeper and so with fertilizer from shore helping out, more algae can grow on rocks much further out. When this stuff gets ripped loose it lays on the bottom. We can't see it, but it's there. When it rots it uses up oxygen and creates an environment perfect for anaerobic bacteria some of which produce powerful toxins. The botulism toxin is so deadly that the amount of bacteria in one maggot's gut can kill a mallard duck. As the toxin get passed around the food chain ( as when a goby eats a zebra mussel with bacteria in it, ) it kills birds. I wrote about this at some length in the Twinkle Toes and the Riddle of the Lake book.

One way to keep the fertilizer on the field comes from Europe. Here, where the CAFO was invented, manure is collected and treated in a digester on many farms. Bacteria break it down and produce methane just as they do in the lake. The gas is piped off and used to heat the farm. Big dairies produce enough to actually sell either the gas or electricity produced from it. The fiber solids from the manure are dried and used as bedding or soil conditioner. The liquid is stored and during the growing season is injected directly into the fields where its rapidly taken up by the plants. This greatly reduces run off and water pollution. Sounds great!
But.

methane digester in Cayuga Co
It's very expensive technology. Few farmers can afford it. Canada recently passed a law requiring power companies to pay a fixed guaranteed amount to methane generators on farms. While we have something called net metering here in NY that pays on farm producers, the farm doesn't get a guaranteed rate. Rather they are paid the “avoided cost” rate that fluctuates considerably throughout the day. This makes it very difficult for a farmer to project revenue from a digester which they need to do to obtain financing for one. One farmer who managed to get grants and loans estimated she spent 1700 hours on paperwork.
Vermont has done a better job of encouraging 'cow power' by guaranteeing payment rates at a certain minimum as has Canada. If NY's electric laws could be changed our water might well be cleaner and we might hear more northbound loons calling out there next spring.

second gas engine that will help sell excess power for Patterson dairy




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