Dairy
March 12, 2020

A Farmer's Journey to Protect the Drinking Water of 400,000 People

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

On an overcast, humid summer Sunday in New York you’ll fi nd Mike McMahon working on his beloved Mopar classic car collection. It’s a hobby that he’s spent decades loving and a collection that has taken just as long to put together. For a similar amount of time, since 1997 to be exact, McMahon has grown passionate about something else: protecting the ground and surface water his farm infl uences. Not only has he protected it since then, but he’s spent a signifi cant effort to clean it up. 

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Dairy farms across the country are working diligently to be more environmentally sustainable. According to a study by Jude Capper, an independent livestock sustainability consultant with Washington State University, compared to 75 years ago the production of 1 gallon of milk requires 65% less water, 90% less land and produces 76% less manure. While pursuing nutrient mass balance on their farm, McMahon’s EZ Acres has implemented several programs that protect the drinking water of their more than 400,000 neighbors. For this work, they were awarded the Sustainability Award in 2018 from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Today McMahon’s EZ Acres is a progressive, sustainable dairy farm with impeccable cow and crop health, but that hasn’t always been the case.

The McMahons tore down four old tiestall barns in 1995 and put in a freestall facility, which at the time was the biggest in the area. By 1997 they were experiencing signifi cant issues with cow health. At the same time Danny Fox, a professor from Cornell University, was looking for a farm to do a case study. The farm needed to fi t two boxes: have the potential for many environmental issues and be facing milk production challenges. The McMahons fi t both stipulations and eventually their farm became the case study that lead to the concept of nutrient mass balance. That concept centers on striking a balance between all the nutrients coming onto the farm and all the nutrients that leave it. 

Environmental Challenges

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Fox was intrigued by the many challenges at EZ Acres and the number of people that could be affected by any kind of environmental mistake on this farm because of its abundant water resources.

The McMahons farm over a sole source aquifer, and 70% of their land base is in one of the northernmost parts of the Chesapeake Bay water-shed. To make matters more interesting, 30% of their farming base runs into Skaneateles Lake, which is the sole drinking source of unfi ltered water for Syracuse. 

“So there’s 230,000 people drinking water out of the lake, and 30% of our land base is in the runoff path,” McMahon says. “Additionally, we also have a AA protected trout stream running to the south fi ve miles and another AA protected trout stream running to the north for about two miles on our land.”

Turning the Tide

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The majority of the milk production issues McMahons were dealing with had to do with the diet they were feeding. “We were feeding 60% concentrates and 40% forges,” he says. “We should’ve known better.” 

Changing the entire way they fed cows was the fi rst of many changes necessary to get the dairy back on track. They also made several changes to how they were farming, transitioning their hill land to grass and changing their crop rotation and their rations to include more grasses.

The grasses grew so well the McMahons ran out of storage. So they poured more concrete and created a new feeding system. 

“Now all of a sudden, we’re able to produce the quality and the quantity of forages that we didn’t think we could before, and then of course, the nutritionist had to begin to feed and change the whole way we fed cows,” he explains. “Fast forward to today we’re close to a 70% forage diet now, and cows are so healthy we don’t know what to do with them all.”

At the same time all this was happening, the EZ Acre team started hearing buzzing concerns about their impact on the drinking water in neighboring communities. “

We’d hear whispers at the diner about our ‘big freestall,’” he says. “They’d say things like, ‘Oh man, they sit right over the water supply.’”

So, at the end of 1997 they started a water sampling program they still use today.

Sampling Success

One in seven Americans drink from private wells, the U.S. Geological Survey reports. Throughout the country, nitrate concentrations in private wells rose significantly in 21% of regions where the U.S. Geological Survey researchers tested groundwater from 2002 through 2012, compared with the 13 prior years. Meanwhile, the data from McMahon’s samples has been compiled since 1997, and since that time nitrates in the ground water has gone from 16 parts per million in a perfectly straight line down to 10 as of the fall of last year. 

“That just told us that we were doing things right, and that we were accomplishing exactly what we set out to do,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to have that in your holster.”

According to McMahon, all farmers should be sampling their wells. He pulls samples every three months from fi ve wells and several points along the trout streams that cross his farm. He also provides a water sampling vial to the city of Courtland to draw a drinking water sample. The well water samples are tested for nitrates and the surface water samples are tested for phosphorus. 

“It just doesn’t cost that much to pull a sample on a regular basis,” he says. “And you never know when somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, my water doesn’t taste right, and you just spread manure over here.’”

The sampling is good for everyone, McMahon says. “It’s for our information, and it’s for the public information, so when they start worrying about what the farm is doing to their water, we can tell them.”