By Kimberly Cauvel/FFP
A quarter of the cows in the Puget Sound Basin are located in Whatcom County. Whatcom County is seventh in the state for agricultural production and second in the state for dairies, said Director of the Whatcom County Conservation District George Boggs.
Including milk cows, replacement cows and beef cows, Boggs said the Department of Agriculture estimates that a total of 100,000 cows and calves reside in the county.
That’s a lot of animals. A lot of animals translates to a lot of poop.
For water bodies with nearby populations of cows, manure-related water contamination is a concern. Fecal coliform bacteria and nitrogen are the main water pollution issues associated with cow manure. Bacteria are primarily a surface water issue and nitrogen is primarily a groundwater issue.
Whatcom County, with so many cows in the area, has a nasty history with these poop-related pollution problems.
Mak Kaufman, water quality inspector at the Bellingham Department of Ecology field office, said all the cattle farms in the county meet the definition of industry because of the amount of manure they produce.
According to the Department of Ecology, each cow produces an average of 75 pounds of manure per day. Compared to the average three to five pounds of waste humans produce daily, one cow produces as much as 15 to 25 humans. With a human population of about 200,434 in Whatcom County and 100,000 cows, the cow population is producing nearly nine times more waste than the human population.
The primary difference between human waste and cow manure is the amount produced. Next, and just as important, is the difference in where it goes. People’s waste enters a sewer system and is carried to intensive treatment plants before being released into water bodies. Cow manure is not treated. It may eventually be funneled directly into water bodies or applied to land as fertilizer, which both pose risks to nearby watersheds.
Thirteen cows and calves inhabit the 35-acre, wetland property Don Hrutfiord calls home. With 13 animals, an average of 975 pounds of manure is produced on the property per day. Each animal lives an average of seven years, producing nearly 2.5 million pounds in their lifetime. Hrutfiord, 81, has lived on the same property in Blaine, just 30 miles south of the Canadian border, his entire life. He said his family raised poultry while he was growing up. The Hrutfiord farm is one of the few remaining family farms in the area.
Fifteen years ago Hrutfiord experienced a water quality conflict with local shellfish harvesters. In nearby Drayton Harbor, the last stretch of salt water below the Canadian border, shellfish harvesting was closed due to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Shellfish harvesters believed livestock farmers were to blame.
“A guy came to my place one day and virtually told me I was gonna have to quit farming because I was polluting the bay,” Hrutfiord said. “I told him to go to hell.”
The conflict led Hrutfiord to get involved with the Whatcom Conservation District and he has been working with them since. The Conservation District is a non-regulatory agency that provides technical and financial assistance to farmers who seek help to meet or maintain compliance with environmental regulations. As a result of participation with the Conservation District and the adoption of suggested management practices, the Hrutfiord farm is now a model farm in the area.
“With a lot of livestock the challenge is keeping pathogens out of surface water,” Boggs said. “Our environment, rainfall, topography and the fact that we have a lot of livestock means we have resources we should be concerned with.”
The Conservation District works with farmers to develop manure management plans to avoid regulatory and penal action by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Ecology. Manure management plans focus on collecting and containing manure to prevent contact with water. Scheduling cropland application of manure in accordance with the weather is also a major consideration.
“We try and raise awareness that agricultural activities can have negative impacts and that management practices can mitigate those impacts,” Boggs said. “Irrespective of whether or not there is a law that could be brought to bear for their conduct, we try to motivate them on the basis that we can improve the situation.”
Following a plan developed by the Conservation District, Hrutfiord operates his beef farm using management practices to prevent his farm from contributing to water quality issues.
He said the distance between the cows and water bodies, the handling of the manure produced and the timing of manure application to the land as fertilizer are the major management considerations; all of which are weather-related.
Securing a cap over his short gray-white hair and pulling on black rain boots over his blue jeans, Hrutfiord prepares to go on a stroll to visit his cows. Following a concrete walkway through his backyard to a dirt trail, he stops to point out a fire-engine red tractor. It’s one of the farms originals, he said, purchased in the 1940s. Walking along the trail he is immersed in trees and ferns. In a voice lined with delight he explains that he feels as though he lives in a park, which he thinks most people would like to do.
Since retiring 20 years ago from his position as an automotive instructor at Skagit Valley College, he has raised beef cattle primarily as a hobby. Further along the trail an array of mossy, plant-entwined cars, vans, tires and old farm machinery is scattered among the trees, revealing bits of the farm’s history and showing glimpses of the owner’s character. In the silent woods the rusted, hollow, dirt-encrusted auto bodies speak of an earlier hobby.
“Back in my misspent youth I was a drag racer,” Hrutfiord said, pointing to a lifeless car resting in the shadows. “That’s where I learned the automotive trade.”
As the winding dirt trail comes to an end, the landscape transitions from shadow-casting trees to an open space of grassland. The dirt trail meets a bark path as a perpendicular “T.” The contrast of the bright bark and dark dirt forms a line emphasizing the split between the trees and the grass. Stretching in both directions, cows graze on the grassland. To the right, a line of brush cuts through the otherwise undisturbed field. In a valley beneath the brush, No Name Creek trickles quietly through the landscape. A wooden building, metal fencing and a concrete compost structure are to the left. Approaching these structures, the air reveals the presence of farm animals. The cows converse with deep moos, visible through the bars of the gate that encloses them.
The cows are a rusty orange-brown with faces masked in white. Large bodies bulk over their seemingly disproportionate stubby, narrow legs. Plastic yellow tags pierce their left ears, imprinted with black numbers replacing names. Their large eyes peer over pale pink noses the size of a man’s palm. Transfixing on the human figure, they observe Hrutfiord curiously as he uses a pitchfork to move hay to the feed bins from bales in stacks that reach above his head. Describing the cows fondly, Hrutfiord speaks of their intelligence, playfulness, health, breed and appearance. It’s a lot of fun working with them, he said, and it’s unfortunate that they are raised for slaughter. He admits to experiencing a level of attachment to the animals at times.
Grazing the pastures of Hrutfiord’s farm April through October, the cows are fenced back 35 feet from No Name Creek. A wide path running the length of the pasture, used to move the cows, is overlaid with bark chips to keep the cows out of the mud. During the wet, winter months the cows are moved off the pasture to a confined feeding lot where they are fed hay. While the cows are kept in the confinement area their manure is collected and composted. To prevent water contamination the compost is secured on a concrete base and covered with a tarp. The composted manure is contained until drier summer months, when it is spread on the pastures as a natural fertilizer to aid grass growth.
“If you don’t do a little work keeping the animals out of the wetlands and out of the mud, you’ll get a concentrated runoff that could be a problem,” Hrutfiord said. “If you get a big rain event you get a lot of water running across the place and if the cattle are standing in it you’re going to have a problem with cow manure.”
After the trip to see his cows, Hrutfiord strips off his muddy boots at his back door and steps back inside his home. He takes a seat in a cream-colored leather chair, lifting his white-socked feet to rest them on a matching ottoman. Dark wood paneling covers the walls around him, lending contrast to the furniture. Ticking from a clock hanging in the hallway fills wordless moments with 60 dominant strokes. Shifting his feet from the ottoman to the floor and back again, arms crossed, he appears nervous. When he speaks, however, he voices a certain authority and upholds cheerful conversation for hours. He’s a jokester; almost always smiling, even when discussing the interaction between his cows and the environment.
Watersheds are susceptible to manure contamination through several avenues. At locations where livestock stand on concrete surfaces, manure is applied as fertilizer, and containing systems leak, manure-related pollutants may be washed into nearby water bodies.
Battling these issues, the Washington State Department of Agriculture regulates livestock farms to protect water quality through a dairy nutrient management program. Farmers must maintain compliance with the Washington State law that declares that the discharge of any polluting matter into state water is illegal. Inspections of cow farms are completed by the Department of Agriculture at least once every 22 months. During inspections the potential for direct discharge and indirect runoff of manure are evaluated.
Several types of bacteria are carried in livestock manure. Water quality tests primarily look for fecal coliform bacteria, which is an indicator that feces of warm-blooded animals such as livestock are present. With fecal coliform bacteria, disease-causing bacteria such as ecoli are also present, which are a risk to human health. In relation to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, shellfish harvesting closures occur throughout the county.
Shellfish are filter-feeders that take in pathogens and disease from the water, which can be transferred to consumers, Boggs said. Commercial shellfish growing areas in Washington State are classified in four categories, as Approved, Conditionally Approved, Restricted or Prohibited.
Classification of Drayton Harbor is currently split; partially Prohibited and partially Conditional, with seasonal closures from the first of November through the end of February.
In Drayton Harbor fecal coliform bacteria has been an ongoing problem, with particularly high levels of contamination in the California Creek and Dakota Creek tributaries to the harbor. In 1995 the harbor was downgraded to a classification of Restricted due to bacterial pollution and the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection Advisory Committee was formed.
“That was the alarm bell, that hey, we gotta do something to protect shellfish harvesting,” said Geoff Menzies, chair of the shellfish committee. Shellfish harvesting in Whatcom County is a commercial resource, a farming resource and a resource harvested by the native Lummi Nation. Shellfish of interest include oysters and clams. “It’s something that’s valuable and that’s why we continue to fight to protect it,” Menzies said.
“We’re trying to grow a healthy food in Drayton Harbor and we just can’t do it consistently now,” he continued. “The bacteria levels are too high to support shellfish harvest, and the harbor is shut down for half the harvesting season, which is October through May.”
Menzies suggests focusing on small livestock farms in the watershed, including 10 commercial dairies, may solve the problem. Although there are other sources of fecal coliform bacteria, such as the 3,000 septic tanks in the watershed, studies conducted by the Puget Sound restoration fund showed that the detection of manure contamination was more widespread in the harbor than human contamination.
“Clearly we have a widespread livestock problem,” Menzies said. “That’s the area where I think if we do better with improved practices on small farms, we’re going to see water quality improve.”
Reaching farmers is a significant challenge, however, particularly with denial that there is a problem and farmer resistance to what is oftentimes viewed as government-controlled farm planning, he said.
The Hrutfiord farm is a model example of beneficial use of a farm plan. “The biggest thing with the Conservation District and in doing these various things that I’ve done is it has improved the quality of the crops, it has improved the quality and the health of the animals and in so doing it’s improved the water quality,” Hrutfiord said. “If you try to grow better crops and better animals the water quality is gonna come right along with it.”
Hrutfiord regularly attends the shellfish committee meetings to stay updated on the status of water quality issues. Although Hrutfiord is not a committee member, Menzies said he makes valuable contributions at the meetings. “One of the best things he’s done was give a tour for the shellfish committee so we could see what’s going on at his farm,” he said.
The Conservation District uses his farm for tours as well, for other farmers as well as students in water quality courses. “I became the poster child for the Conservation District,” Hrutfiord said.
Both the Conservation District and members of the shellfish committee have expressed an appreciation for the practices Hrutfiord has embraced on his farm.
“If everybody farmed the way Don Hrutfiord does, I don’t think we’d have a problem,” said Menzies, the shellfish committee member Hrutfiord told to go to hell 15 years ago. “We would like to see more people farming the way he does, that’s the bottom line.”