A year ago, Richard Chapman’s dairy cows made their twice a day trek out of their holding barn and around to the other side of their milking barn’s entrance, plodding through mud and their own waste, walking on rocks before being milked.
During the winter, they’d walk the path on ice and snow. All the while, rainwater and melting snow mixed with cow manure and other waste ran downhill into an unnamed stream, then to the Canajoharie Creek and then to the Mohawk River.
Today, after a construction project coordinated by the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District, the small tributary on the 450-acre Deer Run Farm takes in mostly rainwater.
The nutrient-rich cow manure is captured instead of being deposited into the creek, and cows on the Deer Run Farm are producing more milk.
The project at Chapman’s farm is one of about 40 similar initiatives planned or implemented in Montgomery County under programs aimed not at producing more milk, but rather keeping contaminants out of the water.
With funding from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and money from the farm, Chapman and the county soil and water conservation district reconfigured the path the dairy cows take before and after milking.
They created a new entrance to the milking barn closer to their housing barn, and added wide concrete steps for the cows to enter and exit on.
A concrete pathway was built between the two barns, and, with the addition of a roof covering the entire pathway, the cows no longer get hit with rain and snow, nor does their waste.
Rainwater is channeled away from the cow path into a catch basin and piped to the tiny creek.
Farmer workers built a loading wall at the edge of the pathway so the waste that lands on the concrete pathway can be pushed with a loader into the farm’s manure spreader.
Prior to the project, the 75 cows at the farm were producing an average of about 58 pounds of milk per day. Today, average output is about 74 pounds daily. A gallon of milk weighs about eight pounds.
Chapman said he had hoped the project would boost his production, but he wasn’t sure. “You don’t expect anything with a cow,” said Chapman, who marked 20 years farming in Montgomery County this past February. But Chapman said it’s well known among farmers that happier cows produce more milk.
milking time cut
The way the farm was set up before, the cows were walking on small rocks and unsteady ground, which Chapman said increased the stress the cows were feeling.
“Small rocks hurt the cows’ feet,” said Chapman, who joked he believes the design of cows’ feet was a mistake because they are often a focus of cow health problems.
Even the small, two-step staircase is considered a factor in the cows’ increased production. Each step is six feet long and six feet deep, and Nellis said anything smaller would make the cows nervous. “They like to have their whole body on each step,” Nellis said.
Though the programs are aimed at improving water quality both on and beneath the surface, the projects can translate into more money to the farmer in the long run, Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Corey Nellis said.
“He sees a dollar value in the investment he made there,” Nellis said.
The cows don’t require as much cleaning now since they aren’t walking around in the mud, rain and snow. And the easier walk to the milking barn cuts about 40 minutes off milking time.
“Now, they get into and out of the barn faster. [Before], they were reluctant to leave,” Nellis said.
Chapman spent about $20,000 on the $55,000 project; the rest was paid for by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets through its Agricultural Nonpoint Source Abatement and Control Program, which gets money from the state Environmental Protection Fund.
“Without that, we wouldn’t be able to cover this,” Chapman said.
Today’s farmers often face environmental problems caused by the way their farms were laid out a century ago, with streams for cattle to drink from running through the pasture or farm yard. “The old farms were build on creeks for the water,” Chapman said.
Montgomery County gets an average of 39 inches of rain each year, Nellis said. Left unchecked, all that rain hitting the ground mixes with effluent and manure, eventually flowing into streams that leads to the Canajoharie Creek, into the Mohawk River and then to the Hudson River.
Downstream communities make use of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers for drinking water.
The farm at SUNY-Cobleskill is similarly situated near a creek — the Cobleskill Creek — and keeping farm waste out of the water is a focus of work and student studies, said Michael McCaskey, dean of agriculture and natural resources.
“It’s a large concern since we have a farm on the campus as well. These kinds of issues we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” McCaskey said.
The college milks about 120 cows and, with sheep, goats and horses, houses some 400 mature animals, McCaskey said.
“It keeps us busy just taking care of the manure. It’s a large part of the work and labor,” McCaskey said.
The college is exploring a bioenergy project, which in a few years could lead to producing energy from the animal waste.
The college’s program doesn’t have enough animals to be forced by government to implement programs to keep waste out of the water, McCaskey said.
“We’re doing it anyway simply for educational reasons and also because we want to be good stewards of the environment,” McCaskey said.
The state earlier this year announced a new round of funding through the program, with a total of $13 million going toward projects statewide.
Of that funding, $200,648 will go to two Montgomery County farms to create a manure storage facility, a system to treat and dispose of waste from a milking barn, the control of leachate from stored cow food, and roof water management systems, according to the state.
Four Schoharie County farms are sharing in $29,828 to develop plans to keep contaminates out of the Flat Creek and Cobleskill Creek watersheds, both of which also lead to the Mohawk River.
Nellis said the number of applications compared to the number of funded projects shows the level of interest among farmers.
The most recent grant announcement will pay about $13 million towards 46 different projects statewide — about half of the 86 applications seeking roughly $26 million to do the work.
The grants are awarded based on a variety of factors that often leave Montgomery County, despite the size of its agriculture industry, at the lower end of the list, Nellis said.
It’s not that there aren’t enough farms, but rather fewer critical resources affected by agricultural runoff.
Nellis said there is no underground aquifer in the county, nor a recreational lake or water park. Areas with these attributes often get prioritized funding, he said.