Dairy Expansion Good for Economy, Bad for Air Quality
Air quality along the Front Range is expected to worsen as the population continues to grow. But people are not the only ones contributing to this problem.
KUNC’s Brian Larson spoke to Northern Colorado Business Report Publisher Jeff Nuttall about the other new arrivals in Weld County.
Larson: As the new Leprino Cheese plant ramps up to full production, the number of dairy cows in Weld County is expected to jump by as many as 50,000 to produce the milk to make the cheese. That’s on top of the 550,000 head of cattle and – Jeff, if you’ll pardon the pun – the “udder” 50,000 dairy cows that are already here. And that means we’re going to be dealing with a growing methane problem.
Nuttall: Ammonia will be another problem. Livestock, including dairy and beef cattle, emit the most ammonia of any pollution source in the state. And that leads to what’s known as nitrogen deposition – including areas like Rocky Mountain National Park. High levels of nitrogen disturb the fragile alpine ecosystems of the park. They do this by creating algae in lakes that could kill fish and favoring grasses that crowd out flowers. Methane, meanwhile, is a greenhouse gas that the EPA says traps heat in the atmosphere more effectively than carbon dioxide.
Larson: Obviously what goes in one end has to come out the other and I know that it’s been estimated that cattle production accounts for about 20 percent of all U.S. methane emissions annually. So what’s being done locally to curb the pollution problem since this is such a large part of the Northern Colorado economy?
Nuttall: First, it’s important to note that agricultural activities are exempt under state air regulations. But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has worked with dairy farmers for years to get them to voluntarily reduce emissions. Officials are considering a system that will warn farmers of upslope weather that could carry ammonia west to the mountains. Recently, the Colorado Livestock Association held an air-quality symposium in Fort Morgan and Lamar. One dairy farmer who attended the event said he has done things like avoiding feeding his cows too much nitrogen and proactively managing manure piles. Meanwhile, the state is looking into whether some large farms will need federal air pollution permits because of their methane emissions.
Larson: Let’s step back for moment. We already have 600,000 cows in Weld County. Are people going to be able to notice an appreciable difference with another 50,000?
Nuttall: Experts say it’s not clear exactly how much pollution the cows will add. One Colorado State University professor who measures livestock emissions doubts a big change in air quality will result. But that will all depend on how farmers manage their herds, the kinds of waste-handling system they use and other factors. As for methane, the experts told us a dairy farm with 6,700 or more cows would emit 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, or about eight thousand tons of methane. That’s not insignificant.
Larson: Having grown up in the Midwest and living in the Greeley area for more than 20 years, there’s also the issue of odor anytime one talks about cows –which is something we haven’t touched on. What about that?
Nuttall: Weld County already requires dairy farmers to control those issues and officials investigate when complaints are made. Dairy farms also are located in agricultural zones, away from populated areas, and the newer facilities are designed to minimize the problem. So the impact there won’t be much.
Larson: Jeff Nuttall is the publisher of the Northern Colorado Business Report.