If the proposed Tuls Green County dairy is built, the Tuls family will own 10,000 cows in Wisconsin.
Alternatively, the same amount of land can support 100 family farms with 100 cows each. More farmers on the land equals a more robust economy, more vibrant rural communities, more kids in local schools, more businesses on Main Street. This confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) will not bring new economic activity to the area. It will simply replace existing farms with one large centrally controlled operation with profits going back to the owners in Nebraska.
Yes, the Tuls farm will hire milkers and farm hands. But experience and common sense tell us that even the best hired help does not have the same commitment to the animals, the land and the community as a farm owner does.
CAFOs are a lot like the Titanic. The technology is flashy and full speed ahead when seas are calm. But when obstacles emerge (as they always do), CAFOs aren't very responsive.
In California, many large dairy farms have gone out of business, in large part due to low milk prices and high input costs. When a big ship goes down, it goes down hard and takes a lot of people with it. Research by the UW-Madison Applied Agricultural Economics Department showed that smaller-scale Wisconsin farms did much better in the 2009 price trough, for example, because they could raise their own feed and provide labor from their families. Wisconsin should not pursue the California model of large-scale, highly indebted CAFOs.
One of the biggest operational challenges for a confinement-based animal operation is getting rid of the manure. The further the waste has to travel, the greater the expense. If nearby neighbors who initially accept manure from the Tuls CAFO change their minds, the operation may spend more money shipping out manure than it earns shipping milk. The bigger the farm, the greater the challenge posed by waste disposal.
In 2004, the state legislature stripped towns and counties of much of their local control over large livestock facilities.
However, towns and counties can still pass meaningful regulations to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Drinking water ordinances, limitations on liquid manure irrigation and careful oversight of CAFO nutrient management plans (such as requiring written manure spreading agreements) all help to protect the kind of resilient and robust economy that citizens want and expect.
The long-term future of Wisconsin agriculture should be actively structured to support more farms, not fewer farms, and farms that do not pose unnecessary economic and environmental risks to their communities.