Michigan farm industry pushes back against state limits on manure spread

Dykhuis Farms

Hogs on Dykhuis Farms. Bob Dykhuis, who operates several southwest Michigan sow farms, said he supports “the spirit” addressing nutrient pollution, but disagrees with new regulations that accomplish that goal by limiting when farmers can spread manure on their fields. (Photo courtesy of Dykhuis Farms)

New regulations that aim to reduce pollution in Michigan waterways from farm animal manure are in legal limbo, after an appeal from farming groups who argue the measures go too far.

A coalition including the Michigan Farm Bureau, other farming industry groups and individual farmers has filed an administrative challenge to Michigan's updated general permit for large animal farms, arguing that the state overstepped its regulatory authority by creating new pollution controls that limit their ability to spread manure on farm fields during the winter. 

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy adopted the new regulations in a March revision of the state’s general permit for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, after months of negotiations with industry groups, environmentalists and others. 

The change was intended as a step to address nutrient pollution that plagues waterways from Saginaw Bay to Lake Erie, as well as inland lakes and streams.

In a May 26 petition to the Michigan Office of Administrative Appeals, the farming coalition argued that the manure spreading restriction and other limits in the new permit “have a tenuous relation to water quality” and will harm food production in Michigan.

In interviews with Bridge, farming industry advocates said they believe the permit places an undue burden on farmers by reducing the amount of land they can farm, and when and how they farm it. 

“At some point in time, the regulatory burden becomes so much, it’s not financially feasible to absorb it,” said Ernie Birchmeier, a livestock and dairy specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Environmental groups who have advocated for tighter controls on manure pollution slammed that claim as baseless and said they are considering their options for intervening in the case.

“The ag industry feels like they should be immune from regulations that they don’t come up with,” said Tom Zimnicki, agriculture program director with the Michigan Environmental Council. “That’s really what it boils down to.”

CAFOs are large feedlots where animals typically live in close quarters rather than grazing pastureland. Their manure is often stored in lagoons or other storage facilities before being applied to farm fields as fertilizer. 

Nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in the manure help plants grow. But when too much is applied to soil  — or frozen ground that can’t absorb it — manure containing those nutrients can run off into nearby waterways. There, it can cause toxic algal blooms that are dangerous to humans and wildlife. Bacteria from the manure can also linger in the water, making it unsafe to drink; or nutrients can leach into the groundwater and contaminate wells.

Scientists and regulators have identified manure from CAFOs as a significant contributor to nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes region, including the toxic algae blooms that turn Lake Erie green every summer.

Michigan’s new permit covers large operations with cows, pigs, chickens and other animals numbering in the hundreds and thousands  — about 260 farms in total.

Because such facilities produce and store large amounts of animal waste in a confined area, they are regulated as so-called point sources under the Clean Water Act — along with wastewater treatment plants, factories and other facilities where pollution stems from a single discernable source — and require waste disposal permits that don’t apply to smaller livestock farms. 

Michigan updates its permit every five years. The new permit released this spring bans the state’s largest concentrated animal feeding operations from spreading manure on farm fields as fertilizer from January through March, with some exceptions. 


Harmful algae blooms, above, can form dense surface scums and may produce toxins that can affect animals and humans. (Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Farms can still apply manure during restricted months if they provide regulators with advance notice, can incorporate the manure into the ground immediately, and if snow and frost levels fall below a certain threshold, among other caveats.

Bruce Washburn, an environmental quality specialist in the state’s CAFO program, said the move is designed to respond to nutrient runoff problems that plague waterways near CAFOs. 

“Data tell us that January, February and March are high-risk runoff months,” Washburn said, noting that EGLE staff has responded to “several” instances of manure leaching into waterways during those months. 

“We’re trying to take that out of the equation so we can protect water quality,” he said. 

The farm coalition’s complaint specifically contests several permit conditions, including the restriction on winter manure spreading, mandates to maintain a vegetation buffer along surface water bodies and other features, and limits to the amount of phosphorus that can already be in soil when manure is applied.

Bob Dykhuis, whose Dykhuis Farms operates several southwest Michigan sow farms, said while he supports “the spirit” of EGLE’s attempt to address nutrient pollution, he disagrees with the approach. There are often days in March, Dykhuis said, when the weather has warmed and the soil is thawed and dry — ideal conditions, he said, to fertilize ahead of spring planting. Now, applying manure on those days is off-limits.

“There’s this assumption that manure is running over the surface,” Dykhuis said, “when if it’s done right, it’s carefully controlled and held by the soil.”

News of the industry challenge irked environmentalists, who say from their perspective, Michigan’s new permit doesn’t go far enough. They had lobbied for an outright ban on manure application in winter, for instance. 

Environmental and public health groups have long decried the CAFO industry, arguing that constant manure production pressures farmers to over-fertilize fields as a means of waste disposal. 

Rebecca Wolf, a senior organizer with Food and Water Action and part of a committee of environmental groups that pushed for tougher regulations in Michigan, said the permit’s exemptions amount to “loopholes” that continue to leave area waterways vulnerable to pollution. 

Still, Wolf said, the new regulations are “a step in the right direction” and environmentalists want to see them maintained.

As Great Lakes governments aim to grapple with the region’s chronic algae bloom problems, reducing CAFO manure pollution has emerged as a key priority for regulators throughout the region. In a report made public in January, the international Great Lakes Water Quality Board published a series of policy recommendations for states and Canadian provinces to address the problem.

Among them: Requirements for “permissible timing and amount of manure application” that could include restrictions on winter application. 

Jon Allan, U.S. co-chair of the international board who formerly ran the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, said he’s not surprised to see squabbling emerge on how Michigan will deal with its nutrient management problems. 

How Michigan addresses the problem is up for debate, he said, but in the end, more action is needed to protect public health and reduce the pollution that appears in the region’s waterways every summer.

“Lake Erie ain't where it should be,” he said, and neither are many other waterways throughout the Great Lakes region. “Everybody’s got to share that burden, and that includes the way we dispose of agricultural manure.”

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Sat, 06/20/2020 - 12:30pm

This law was long over due. Our waters were getting worse and worse from farm runoff. More needs to be done.

John Darling
Sat, 06/20/2020 - 12:34pm

It seems to me that we need to be good stewards of the land and treat it in a sustainable manner.CAFO operations produce massive (industrial sized) amounts of waste which they are seeking to dump in the cheapest manner possible. We the occupants and stewards of the lakes have a responsibility to take care of the lakes in a manner that our children and their children may enjoy the waters as we do. The now chronic problems of toxic algal growth show us that our current rules are insufficient to address the problem. We should be closely regulating winter applications of manure as simply a first step.

Sun, 06/21/2020 - 8:51am

These are factory farms and operate in a 'factory' mentality and functionality. First, how they raise their livestock is improper and cruel to the animals. Secondly, they are trying to 'dump' their 'debris' leftover from 'production' in the cheapest easiest way possible. They need to scale back the production of manure by practicing more humane animal practices. Secondly, they need to find a more environmentally safe way to dispose of the manure. The waterways belong to us all, and we all need to be good stewards.

Ben Smaga
Sun, 06/21/2020 - 9:12am

That's not the so, I live in farm country. Our family was in the feeder pig business back in the 80's. Grandparents crop farmed all their lives. The real problem is not livestock. The corn and soybean industry has genetically modified the plant to need more nitrogen for greater yields. Every year my stream turns green ,and the fish die about two weeks after the farmers spray and we get rain. No one wants to talk about artificial sources of nitrogen and the run off sprayed on the fields. The amounts of fertilizer ( nitrogen) and round up needed for the same yield and weed prevention goes up every year. I help out a few farmers around here during harvest season. You don't want to know how many chemicals their putting on the ground. Pig farmers are the least of our worries.

Sun, 06/21/2020 - 4:49pm

There is little doubt that excessive chemical application contributes to the pollution problems as you mentioned, however, as I understand it, that is not point source pollution. The requirements discussed in this article are included in permits for point source discharges, and I would hope they can be implemented in a way that truly reduces runoff without being too burdensome. To the extent that manure runoff is part of the problem, it needs to be minimized. We also need action addressing the non-point nutrient sources like the applications you mentioned. I agree that the pig farmers aren't solely to blame here, but these feedlots do seem to be part of the problem.

Tue, 06/23/2020 - 4:54pm

Eating flesh is not sustainable. Eating flesh caused covid-19.

middle of the mit
Sun, 06/21/2020 - 8:42pm

I have heard the same arguments about small farms and rivers and ponds. Doesn't matter.

The farmers will get their way unless the fishermen gather together and fight them in the legislature. This is how Government works. It doesn't work for the individual, it works for organized and well funded groups of individuals.

Why do you think those in power beat down on workers unions?

Get used to this, unless WE group TOGETHER.

Tue, 06/23/2020 - 4:56pm

Yep, the anglers beat the fish farmer on the ausable not too long ago.

Mon, 06/22/2020 - 10:11pm

I don't think the CAFO dairy industry needs any more breaks, I'm tired of constantly propping them up with my taxpayer money only to have them destroy the roads around my house that my tax dollars pay for with their hundreds of loads of manure a week, and not able to be held accountable for it due to the right to farm act. All I hear is how rough the dairy farmers have it, yeah maybe the small, respectable ones. The CAFO dairy operations around my house are still buying land and farms at prices that are much higher than any other small crop farmer can afford to pay, just to have more land to dump manure on. The lawmakers need to quit propping them up so they can make profit off something that goes down in demand every year. Why didn't we bail out more manufacturing jobs if we were going to keep handing money to large dairy in a losing battle? We let manufacturing go under here in the USA, why not let mega dairy try to make it on their own? I say "large dairy" because they are the ones that dump the most manure, hundreds of thousands of gallons, and they are the ones that soak the taxpayers for the most money, not the little guys trying to make it on their own that don't get the bulk price breaks the taxpayer supported big guys do. Not a fan, and neither are any of their neighbors or my neighbors, but they've done it to themselves. A little respect goes a long way in the way you are perceived by others.

No manure
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 5:05pm

Everything you say is absolutely correct about Big Agra. The farm bill is a joke, nothing but corporate welfare, in the form of privatized profits and socialized clean up costs.

If you love meat and don't care about farm animals or animal cruelty, watch a documentary on where it comes from, like Death On A Factory Farm or any other film that shows real footage of what we grew up thinking was "humane" "food processing", aka farm animal slaughtering.

Go vegan
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 4:50pm

How is it okay to spread farm animal manure, but not human manure?

middle of the mit
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 6:32pm

Because farm animals don't eat farm animals, unless we are talking pigs. Even then farm animal manure is good fertilizer. Human, dog and cat manure? Not so much. If you ever lived where you have a septic tank, you know the grass grows the best where the drain field drains out. But I wouldn't put that on my garden. There are still bacteria and other things that I don't know that will make plants inedible. But I know chicken manure, just like bat guano has to be aged before use or it will burn and destroy plants.

Using carnivore or even omnivore manure is not a good idea for growing anything. If it were, that is what we would be doing with it.