Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Printed in Feedstuffs Magazine Oct 3, 2005

Ignorance leads to ungratefulness

If dairy cows in this country are trying to get attention, they should be happy with their press coverage in the past few weeks. A recent article in the Washington Post may have been as damaging as any one thing I have read in the newspaper. What continues to baffle me is they talk about food production as some profit hungry corporate entity that is willing to sacrifice human health for monetary wealth. The article never once mentions that San Joaquin Valley Dairymen raise their own kids there. The article never once mentions that these farms are producing the necessities for all Americans - food, clothing and life-saving pharmaceuticals.

Dairies have long been accused of causing air pollution in the state of California and cows are considered leading contributors to the smog problem. These accusations were based on a 1938 model of air emissions until Dr. Frank Mitloehner from the University of California - Davis released more recent air quality results.

Forgot about the cow study for a minute and think about the impact of automobiles in California? The state has 36 million people with 24 million registered vehicles that use 47 million gallons of fuel daily. Californians drive 825 million miles and kick 5.4 million pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere every single day, not counting the rubber left in the environment from wear and tear on their tires.

Alison Draper, a toxicologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut reports that the color of tires comes from a chemical called carbon black, which is basically soot. Soot contains chemical by-products that are known environmental pollutants. Tire rubber contains hazardous sulfur and zinc compounds that are used to speed up the rubber-making process. The main ingredient in tire rubber is a synthetic polymer called styrene-butadiene, which is a big, stable chemical that doesn't degrade very easily. But why would the west coast residents want to take responsibility for their pollution problem when they could easily point at the cows.

Mitloehner is apparently the first scientist since 1938 to study the true impact of a dairy cow on California’s environment. His initial results indicate that the old estimates are significantly wrong. His findings led him to believe that not only is the data old but it may have been interpreted incorrectly. His numbers indicate that the contribution of cattle to air pollution is considerably less than half of what was previously thought and the pollution itself does not come from the manure but from belching.

Although the new data is positive for agriculture, the discouraging notion is that much of the current EPA Consent Agreement came about because of the old dairy cow research in California. Today, dairymen are working with the EPA and research institutions to determine the true impact the 2000 dairies in the state are making on the environment. Regardless of what they find, I doubt that many of the 36 million residents will be volunteering to be monitored for belching, tire wear and transportation pollution and then face being sued for their contribution to the smog problem.

Perception is really our problem. The average car-driving American may or may not feel guilty about putting petroleum products into the atmosphere but they don’t even know that local livestock operations are actually managing nutrients that are essential to life. That is why it is so important to refer to this component of our operation as “Nutrient Management” rather than manure handling. Hopefully the day will come when consumers will realize that nitrogen and phosphorous are essential to plant and animal life and thus to the whole circle of life, rather than considering them just a smelly waste factor of food production.

Trent Loos is a 6th generation United States farmer, host of daily radio show Loos Tales and founder of Faces of Agriculture, non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com or email Trent at trent@loostales.com.