ELLISVILLE - Arlin Karnopp doesn’t drink the water in his house.
Taped to the refrigerator is a sign that says, “Do Not Use.” He’s afraid his grandchildren will fill their cups from the ice dispenser on the door.
Since 2015, results of his well tests show potentially harmful bacteria and nitrates. Karnopp blames manure spread by large dairy farms on a ridge next to his property.
“Everything rolls downhill,” said Karnopp, 67, a retired over-the-road truck driver. He lives in dairy-intensive Kewaunee County, where cattle exceed people by about 5 to 1.
“I’m very disgusted," he said. "If we could only turn back the clock.”
Turning it back even five years would take Karnopp to a time when Wisconsin boasted more than 10,000 farms — most of them small, family operations passed down for generations.
Since then, a drawn-out assault of low milk prices has pummeled America's Dairyland. More than 2,700 Wisconsin dairy farms have gone out of business. Many more face tough decisions this winter as a poor fall harvest has led to soaring prices for cattle feed.
Large-scale dairy farming, however, is on a different trajectory. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are growing rapidly and taking over an increasing share of the state’s milk production.
Often referred to as industrial or mega-farms, they can house thousands of cows in massive metal buildings. Cows are milked three times a day in an operation that runs around the clock and tankers full of milk head in and out at all hours. Some newer industrial buildings run the length of a half-dozen football fields; farmers have been known to fly drones inside to get a bird's-eye view of their operations.
The average size of a Wisconsin dairy farm is about 150 cows. Farms qualify as CAFOs when their milk-producing herds reach 700.
Such large operations are a relatively new phenomenon in Wisconsin.
The number of these industrial dairy farms in the state has jumped 55% in less than a decade, to 279 farms, Department of Natural Resources figures show. Farms with 500 or more cows had 41% of the state's cow population in 2017, up from 3% in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Their massive milking operations, popularized in California, shatter the traditional model of Wisconsin farms. With so many cattle, they run the risk of contaminating groundwater and overwhelming lakes, rivers and streams with runoff pollution while making it harder for smaller farms to compete.
The question is whether Wisconsin is suited for dairy farming on a grand scale and whether dairy farming as we have known it has a future.
The coming decade could tell us.
Manure: Beneficial and Problematic
Manure has been a dependable and potent fertilizer for as long as cows have grazed the land.
But when it runs off a farm field or seeps into groundwater, manure pollutes. Bacteria and nitrates can poison drinking water, and too much phosphorus from manure and fertilizer can supercharge aquatic plant growth and upend water systems, eventually sucking out oxygen.
Dairy cows are veritable waste machines; on average they excrete nearly 17 gallons of manure and urine a day. While cities use sewage treatment systems to remove contaminants, most farmers store a mix of manure, urine and water in lagoons and typically spread it across crop fields in spring and fall.
A single farm with 500 cows produces as much daily waste as South Milwaukee, based on Cornell University research.
A 1,000-cow herd? Think of the 42,000 residents of Fond du Lac.
The largest Wisconsin CAFOs — those with 6,000 cows — generate as much manure and urine as 252,000 people, on par with Madison.
They are required to have six months of manure storage capacity and their owners must write plans detailing how and where they’ll spread their waste. Smaller farms are not required to use spreading plans. About 37% of the 9 million acres of Wisconsin cropland are covered by such plans, state figures show.
“No question, CAFOs are more regulated,” said Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association from 2012 to 2018 and a former state agriculture department regulator. “But we don’t have a handle on whether those practices are being followed because there is so little oversight on spreading."
The most extensive audit of spreading practices in recent years, done in 2017 by the DNR, found that more than a quarter of CAFO inspections turned up some violations of manure application requirements.
In August 2018, a lethal combination of manure spreading and heavy rains severely damaged miles of the Sheboygan River near Malone in Fond du Lac County. In just one 575-foot section, DNR employees found 40 dead northern pike — some as long as 30 inches, according to agency records. In a small offshoot of the river, scores of dead fish littered the surface where the last remaining oxygen would have been found.
The DNR alleges that Redtail Ridge Dairy, a large-scale farm, should not have been spreading manure with a rainstorm in the forecast and that the manure ultimately washed into public waters. The case has been referred to the state Justice Department for civil prosecution.
The farm’s owners, Joseph and Tyler Thome, said they believe other farms in the watershed also bore responsibility for the contamination, according to DNR documents.
George Miller, 71, owns land bordering the Sheboygan River.
“The farms are getting so big and they have only so much room to put their manure on," he said. “We don’t like it, but we don’t feel there is much you can do.”
Kewaunee County Water Woes
Tucked under Door County, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Kewaunee County is riddled with pockets of shallow soil and fractured bedrock, called karst, that make groundwater more susceptible to contamination.
It’s also the home of 16 industrial farms — the third-highest amount among Wisconsin counties.
“This model of massive animal incarceration in vulnerable areas is simply not a good model,” said Lee Luft, a county supervisor and one of a group of residents who pushed regulators for more controls on manure spreading in Kewaunee.
The county’s rivers that flow to Lake Michigan all fail to meet state water quality standards for phosphorus, which can trigger algae blooms that could imperil aquatic life.
In 2014, citizens and six environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate groundwater contamination, claiming the DNR under Republican Gov. Scott Walker had failed to use its regulatory powers over large farms to protect drinking water.
Last year, after a lengthy public airing, the DNR mandated stricter manure spreading limits — the first in years — for a group of eastern Wisconsin counties, including Kewaunee.
“I think in the karst areas, we just can’t continue to do what we are doing,” Davina Bonness, the county’s land and water director, told residents at a public meeting this fall.
During spring and fall when manure hauling is the most active, her office fields three to five complaints a day about spreading.
In September, she said, county staff went door-to-door in a section of Lincoln Township to warn residents not to drink the water. Runoff from an industrial farm after a rain had been draining into sinkholes — a direct conduit to groundwater.
Numerous studies in the county over the years have found widespread evidence of wells contaminated with bacteria.
One of the most recent — and the most authoritative, using DNA to trace the source of contamination — tied the problem to both cattle and septic systems, according to researchers from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.
The same researchers have come to similar conclusions in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties in an ongoing study in southwestern Wisconsin. Waste from cattle, hogs and humans all turned up in drinking water.
“I think that we need to accept and acknowledge our share of the problem,” said Don Niles, who milks 3,000 cows in Casco in Kewaunee County, a hotbed in the clash over industrial farms.
Niles is a founder of Peninsula Pride Farms, which was formed in 2016 in Kewaunee and southern Door counties and is one of a growing number of farmer-led groups, including CAFOs, that are promoting conservation strategies in watersheds across the state.
“We have to know and come to grips with the problem," he said. "Clearly, we in agriculture are not the whole cause of water contamination. But we are a significant contributor.”
Sitting at his kitchen table, Arlin Karnopp, the retired truck driver from Kewaunee, looks over his well tests. Dating back to 2015, they are a mixed bag. Sometimes the wells met state standards for drinking water; other times, they contained high levels of coliform bacteria and nitrates.
This year, for the first time in more than four decades on the land, he and his wife, Mary Lou, have contended with brown water flowing from their faucets.
Last February, above-freezing temperatures sent snow and manure-laden soil into his yard, forming a large pond the color of coffee.
The industrial farm that spread the manure, Hall’s Calf Ranch, took issue with whether manure was in the water, according to DNR documents.
But agency records show water samples detected ammonia and phosphorus — both markers for manure. On Oct. 1, the DNR issued the farm a notice that it violated state manure handling requirements.
The irony: Karnopp’s father once owned the land and Karnopp remembers riding in a tractor doing the same chore.
“But not like they do today,” he said. “There’s just so much of it, they don’t know what to do with it.”
Large-Scale Farms Dominate Milk Production
More than half of the milk cows in the U.S. were on dairies with more than 1,000 cows as of 2017, according to the USDA's agricultural census. They accounted for 58% of the nation’s milk. Two decades earlier, those operations had less than 20% of the milk cows, according to USDA data.
On average, dairy farms with 2,000 or more cows have 12% lower feed costs and 20% lower operating costs — per hundred pounds of milk produced — than farms with 100 or 200 cows. The big farms also produce more milk per cow.
“The large-scale operations are making a lot of milk, and they’re doing it efficiently at low cost. It does put a lot of pressure on some of the smaller, often multigeneration, farms," said Ben Laine, a dairy industry analyst with Rabo AgriFinance in St. Louis.
The largest concentration of big dairy farms was in California and Idaho, followed by Texas, according to U.S. farm census data.
One survival tactic used by smaller farms has been switching to organic dairying. At times, these farms have gotten twice the rate for their milk, which offsets the higher feed and other operating costs.
Even in that niche, however, industrial farms quickly changed the business model.
A handful of mega-sized dairies in the Southwest now produce more certified organic milk than all of Wisconsin’s 450 organic dairies combined.
The market is “oversupplied and competition is fierce,” said Adam Warthesen, government relations director for Organic Valley, of La Farge in Vernon County.
Critics contend industrial farms get around rules calling for, among other things, a minimum amount of grazing time for cows in order for the milk to be certified organic.
It’s unfair competition, said Tom Schaub, an organic dairy farmer with 60 cows on Jewel View Farms, on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in La Crosse County.
As a result, many farmers have returned to conventional dairy farming, "not because they didn’t believe in organics, it’s just the economics of it now," said Schaub, who is also president of Westby Cooperative Creamery in Westby. "They have to be able to make their payments and support their farm.”
'Corporate Takeover of Dairy Production'
As industrial farms take over more of the milk production, they've been recognized for their ability to leverage their size and modernize dairying so that the U.S. can continue to compete in what has become a cutthroat international marketplace.
Operators are managing around-the-clock operations, often with dozens of employees, including professional staff with college degrees in dairy science.
Every three weeks, a livestock nutritionist with a doctorate degree stops at Don Niles' farm and tweaks feed regimens to boost milk output. “I don’t get that kind of attention with my diet at home,” Niles said.
Still, industrial farms can fail environmentally, sometimes with disastrous results.
In 2018, the second-largest dairy farm in Oregon folded, leaving behind a mountain of debt and 30 million gallons of manure and wastewater.
The 13,000-cow operation south of the Columbia River, near Boardman, opened in early 2017 and at one time had a permit for 30,000 animals. In less than two years it accumulated more than 200 environmental violations and nearly $200,000 in fines, the largest amount ever issued against a CAFO by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
State regulators sued to shut Lost Valley Farm down, saying it posed a threat to drinking water wells by allowing liquid manure to overflow from storage lagoons. Thousands of cattle and the farm were sold at auction.
“If we have anything to say about it, there won’t be a new dairy operation there at all because we're seeking a moratorium on these new big farms until we can make sure we are protecting our water, our air and our family farmers,” said Amy van Saun, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, an environmental group in Portland.
"There was definite mismanagement. But the problem with an operation that big is, when even something small goes wrong, it can have a big impact," she said.
Most Wisconsin industrial farms are family-owned, although there are outside investors in some operations. Nationwide, it’s unclear whether corporate dairy interests have gained sufficient market strength yet to drive out the most efficient independent milk producers, said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri.
But dairy farmers cannot ignore the lessons of poultry and pork farms, Ikerd said, where small producers were forced out when food companies established their own operations, with thousands of chickens, turkeys and pigs.
“We are now seeing a corporate takeover of dairy production, which is the last bastion of full-time, independent family farms in animal agriculture,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality now confronting smaller independent dairy farmers.”
Some large retail chains are bottling their own milk and contracting directly with farmers to get it. In June 2018, Walmart opened a 250,000-square-foot processing plant near Fort Wayne, Indiana, acquiring milk from 30 farms in Indiana and Michigan. The plant was built to supply milk to hundreds of Walmart stores in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.
Walmart’s decision to build the plant was backed by millions of dollars in tax incentives from the State of Indiana and local officials seeking about 300 jobs in return.
“This new plant is a perfect example of the kinds of efficiencies Walmart seeks in our supply chain to benefit our customers,” Tony Airoso, senior vice president of sourcing strategy said in a statement.
But it left about 100 dairy farmers for Dean Foods Co. without a milk buyer when Dean lost that part of Walmart’s business, according to industry analysts. In November, citing a continued decline in milk sales, Dean filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Dean "had bigger, industrywide issues with the consumption of milk products. But the loss of the Walmart business was just another thing they didn’t need,” said Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Farms Expand for Different Reasons
Ikerd spent much of his career promoting large expansions.
“I supported this process because I thought it was going to make agriculture more efficient and it would be good for farmers and rural communities," he said.
Then he changed his mind.
"It hasn't fed hungry people, it hasn't produced healthy foods and it hasn't supported independent family farms and rural communities," he added.
Scaling back the size of U.S. dairy farms isn’t the answer, said Tim Trotter, executive director of Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Association.
“Decisions to expand are often made for reasons that have nothing to do with supply or demand,” Trotter said. “For example, a child coming home and wanting to buy into the farm. How would we accommodate these kinds of expansions?
A veterinarian by training, Niles started his Kewaunee County dairy farm in 2001 with a business partner after a stint with agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. in California’s dairy-rich San Joaquin Valley.
“People ask, ‘Why did they let the CAFOs in?’ ” Niles said. “In people’s minds, they think there was a migration of large farms from California or somewhere that came here and took over our dairy industry.”
Instead, some farmers opted to grow to “keep their kids in the business, not milk cows twice a day for 40 years and take some vacations,” he said.
His partner was John Pagel, owner of 5,000-cow Pagel’s Ponderosa who died in a private plane crash in February 2018 in Indiana with his son-in-law and the pilot.
“Best friend I ever had,” Niles said.
When they first met in 1987, Pagel had 74 cows. Today, his family-run dairy churns out a line of cheeses and owns a farm-to-fork restaurant in downtown Green Bay.
In the 1970s, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz famously told farmers to "get big or get out" and plant "fence row to fence row." He championed industrial farming.
This fall at World Dairy Expo in Madison, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue drew sharp criticism for essentially reprising that message specifically to dairy farmers.
“Now what we see, obviously, is economies of scale having happened in America — big get bigger and small go out,” Perdue said. "With the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today, to survive milking 40, 50, 60 or even 100 cows — and that's what we've seen."
The message disheartened some family farmers.
“I went to Madison feeling financially scared and emotionally depressed, but hopeful," said Paul Adams, who has a 500-cow organic dairy farm near Eleva in Trempealeau County. "I came home feeling financially scared, emotionally depressed, unwanted and unneeded."
Brittany Olson left her Barron County farm at 3 a.m. to make it to Madison for the speech.
“To go through the effort to see the USDA secretary, only for him to say that small farms like ours likely have no future, made me feel like little more than a peasant in a system of modern-day feudalism,” Olson said.
The mindset that’s been pushed on farmers — to continually grow — is one reason for the overproduction that’s suppressed milk prices and forced people out of business, said Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby in Vernon County and president of Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“We need to look at something that will benefit all of rural America, not just corporate rural America,” he said.
No 'One-Size-Fits-All Way to Farm'
Perdue's message in part reflected the growing political voice that owners of larger farms have cultivated.
On Nov. 5, the Wisconsin Senate effectively fired Brad Pfaff, the agriculture secretary under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — a move with no precedent in at least the last half-century. Although Pfaff was personally popular with many farm groups, the agriculture department had proposed rules that could have placed limits on farm expansions.
The Wisconsin Farmers Union backed the changes.
“We felt very strongly that these modifications were long overdue after the tremendous changes we’ve seen in the agricultural industry and lots of concerns that have been expressed by people in rural communities,” said Kara O’Connor, the government relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“We have farms in Wisconsin now that are larger than anyone had ever contemplated in 2006 when this rule was first passed,” she said.
But representatives of CAFOs fiercely opposed the changes.
Cynthia Leitner, president of Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, said it's not fair to demonize big farms. The organization was formed in 2018 to represent CAFOs.
"There is no one-way, one-size-fits-all way to farm," she said.
Leitner acknowledged that a glut of milk in the last five years has been brutal on dairy farmers.
But at the same time, Wisconsin cheese plants have brought in milk from other states because it was cheaper, even with transportation costs. Those plants could be looking for new suppliers when a $500 million processing facility under construction in St. Johns, Michigan, comes on line in late 2020. It is expected to siphon off much of the milk that has been coming to Wisconsin.
"The double-edge sword in this case is what happens if we cannot produce enough milk" to make up for the loss, Leitner said. Her fear is that those Wisconsin processors will expand elsewhere.
"The fight should not be about big and small (farms). It should be about keeping Wisconsin dairy for future generations," she said.
Organic dairy farmer and Republican state Rep. Travis Tranel of Cuba City said he understands why CAFOs draw different reactions.
"At the end of the day, they can put a product on the shelf that is just as safe, just as nutritiously sound as anybody, if not more so, at a cheaper price," Tranel said.
He defended industrial farms' overall environmental track record but acknowledged there are unintended economic consequences. As small farms disappear, and local agribusinesses are consolidated, it's "not good for our rural schools, it's not good for our rural churches, it's not good for our rural communities."
'No One Should Have to Go Through What We Went Through'
Many of those who live near industrial farms would argue the consequences go far beyond local spending.
In Juneau County, a lawsuit filed in November 2018 alleges that Central Sands Dairy, an industrial farm that milks more than 4,100 cows, and Wysocki Produce Farm Inc., a vegetable grower, knew that monitored wells showed high nitrate levels dating back to 2008 but failed to tell neighbors or state authorities.
The case is still being litigated and involves more than 300 plaintiffs — including a Nekoosa mother who lost a baby at 23 weeks to a severe birth defect.
Tim Huffcutt, a spokesman for Central Sands, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He noted, however, that a coalition of three farms, including Central Sands, has agreed to provide bottled water and, as of mid-November, had coordinated the installation of 48 water purification systems to homes with contaminated wells.
Nitrate has been associated with a condition called blue baby syndrome, which reduces the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood.
“They don’t turn blue, but grayish purple,” toxicologist Sarah Yang of the state Department of Health Services told a group of citizens this fall in Amherst at a meeting about high nitrate levels in Portage County.
According to Yang, infants, pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant, are at the most risk from high nitrates. Some studies suggest it may cause birth defects, thyroid problems and colon cancer.
The EPA conducted its own groundwater investigation in a 30-square-mile area of Juneau County that included Central Sands in late April and early May 2018. It found that of 200 samples, 130 had nitrate levels higher than the drinking water standard. All were in locations where groundwater flowed from the direction of farm fields. Wisconsin’s nitrate standard in drinking water is 10 parts per million.
A month later, officials in Juneau and Wood counties found that 42% of 104 residential wells exceeded the nitrate drinking water standard.
Celina Stewart, one of the litigants in the lawsuit, has blogged about the anguish of losing a baby. She also has urged the DNR not to renew a five-year permit for Central Sands — something it has not yet done.
In her comments to the agency, Stewart said her well tests showed nitrate levels ranging from 15 parts per million to more than 40 parts per million and that she was only aware of the lower reading while pregnant.
“No one should have to go through what we went through because of water," Stewart wrote. "We should be able to go to our faucet and turn it on and safely drink water from our well and not worry about getting sick or dying."
Andrew Mollica of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.