On an August weekend in 2009, campers in the Port Huron State Game Area began to realize there was something terribly wrong with the Black River.

They were finding dead fish floating on the river’s surface.

Eventually, the cause of the fish kill was traced to an excessive application of liquid cow manure at Noll Dairy Farm in Croswell.

State officials said the discharge affected more than 20 miles of the river and killed about 218,000 fish.

Seven years later, the fish are back in the river. But dairy cows still defecate — more than 80 pounds per day, according to information from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

With blue-green algae blooms becoming a part of summer in Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, concern is growing that nutrients — including those from cow manure and from large operations with more than 700 milk-producing animals — could be a long-term problem as farmers look for places to put cow waste.

Most of them use it as fertilizer to grow the crops such as corn and alfalfa the cows will eat. That’s an age-old agricultural practice, but as farms get bigger, technology has changed from the hired man with a scoop shovel to machinery and storage lagoons.

Jim Reid milks about 220 Holstein dairy cows on his farm in Grant Township. He said the size of the herd, which would dwarf most operations 50 years ago, is about average for the state of Michigan.

He keeps liquid manure in a lagoon, the same practice as operators of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). A dairy CAFO, according to information from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is defined as an operation with 700 or more milk-producing animals. A beef CAFO has more than 1,000 animals.

Reid’s cows, according to the NRCS data, could produce as much as an estimated 17,600 pounds of manure daily. A CAFO with 700 animals would produce about an estimated 56,000 pounds each day.

A 2015 report titled Follow the Manure from a group called the Less=More Coalition found more than 140 CAFOs in the western Lake Erie watershed with more than 12 million animals producing 630 million gallons of waste annually.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality listed 30 dairy CAFOs in Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties in October 2015 – about a quarter of the 116 statewide.

Reid said one of the benefits of storing liquid manure in an earthen or concrete-lined lagoon is he can control when it is applied to his fields.

But critics say the lagoons could overflow or leak into groundwater and that applying liquid manure to fields can result in nutrient runoff that contributes to the blue-green algae blooms that have plagued Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

“The problem is you have too many animals in one location,” said Lynn Henning, a field representative for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. She and her husband, Dean, farm corn and soybeans on 300 acres in Lenawee County in the River Raisin watershed. “You’re using a liquid system that is not environmentally safe or sound.”

She said the waste is untreated and includes more than manure.

“When you put it in lagoons, you’re mixing cow waste, mixing cleaners, mixing antibiotics,” Henning said.

“You’re making like a toxic soup.”

Best practices

Shelby Berlew, livestock environmental educator for Michigan State University Extension, said the goal of manure management is “to keep the manure in the field and the root zone and not in surface waters.”

She said under the state’s Right to Farm Act, farmers are encouraged to follow what are called Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices, or GAAMPS, that are based on science and are updated annually.

“In doing so, it helps promote sound environmental stewardship on Michigan farms,” she said.

While following the practices is voluntary, there are benefits for the farmer, said Laura Campbell of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“If you are following all of those GAAMPs, what you get is protection from nuisance lawsuits,” she said.

“If somebody files a complaint to say, ‘This farm stinks,' or 'I’m seeing something wrong,’ depending on the nature of the complaint, the Michigan Department of Agriculture will come out and investigate, and if the farmer is following all of these GAAMPs, the ag department will say you’re doing nothing wrong.

“They’ll dismiss the complaint if they see the person is following all of those GAAMPs," she said.

Berlew said farmers work through the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program to develop manure and nutrient management plans.

CAFO operations have to be permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Smaller farms don’t need a permit from the state, said Campbell, but “if a farm has had a discharge from runoff and it’s been a situation where the DEQ has had to step in with enforcement, they might require a permit.”

Farms that are in close proximity to each other might also be required to have permits, she said.

Reid said the cows at his farm are housed in free stalls that allow them to roam with each animal having its own resting spot. The barn is scraped using machinery three times daily when the cows are being milked at 4 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.

Unlike in the past, when manure wound up in a pile by the side of the barn until it could be spread on a field, the manure is stored in a lagoon.

“What we are preparing to do here in the next few weeks before we plant our crops, we will take some of that manure,” Reid said. “They stir that entire lagoon up so all the solids are homogenized with the liquids, so we have a homogenized liquid to put on our fields.”

He said liquid manure is not applied willy-nilly on the fields.

“That liquid, we take a sample of it and have it analyzed to see how much phosphorus is in it, how much potassium is in it, how much nitrogen is in it so we can apply it to our fields to support the crop we’re going to grow,” Reid said. “That will allow us to not over-apply nutrients to our fields.

“For us, we actually are looking at manure as a nutrient for our crops. Commercial fertilizer has gotten very expensive. It saves us from purchasing commercial fertilizer."

He said the process is more high tech than most people think. An agronomist can take the date from sampling the liquid manure and, Reid said, “If our goal is 100 bushels of corn per acre, they can write a prescription to show how many nutrients you need to produce that.”

He said he hires a company to pump out his lagoon and apply the manure.

“I hire it done and, over the course of two or three days, they can have me pumped out and I can take it to fields that are 3, 4 or 5 miles away,” he said. “That’s how we take care of it if a field gets too high levels of phosphorus.”

Both he and the company keep a close eye on the weather, Reid said. They don’t want a rainstorm that could flush nutrients into a watercourse.

“We look at the forecast, and if it’s going to take me two days or three days to make this haul, I want to make sure we have five or six days of no rain,” Reid said.

He said he also works up the field within 40 feet to 50 feet next to any ditches and makes sure that area is not treated with manure.

“If there’s some runoff that starts going toward the ditch, it will get soaked in,” Reid said. “It has a lot of obstacles before it gets into the ditch.”

Charlie Lewis, of Lewis Farms in North Street, raises beef cattle, about 740 head, from 350-pound calves to 1,500-pound steers. He applies solid manure to all his crops – corn, winter wheat and sugar beets.

“It’s a very valuable resource,” he said.

The manure is applied with an old-fashioned spreader, he said.

“We’ve got storage facilities for it also,” he said. “We can take manure and stockpile it until we have a good opportunity to apply.”

Lewis said he also has guidelines to follow for applying solid manure.

“There are setbacks from ditches you have to maintain, and you have to incorporate it into the ground within a certain amount of time,” he said.

But both Henning and James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, contend that too many animals in a too little area can result in fields where there are too many nutrients for crops to handle.

“You’re surface applying the waste,” Henning said. “A lot of the farmers are using no-till (not plowing before planting) so it remains on the surface and every time it rains you get the surface phosphorus that washes into the water.

“You’re concentrating too many animals in one location,” she said. “When I was young, there were no more than 100 cows (per farm) and it was spread out more evenly on the land.”

Clift said CAFOs try to keep their lagoons empty in the summer to avoid applying manure in the winter when it would be more inclined to run off frozen ground during a rain event — but those operators have to look farther afield as phosphorus and other nutrients build.

“As farmers move toward no-till practices, they get a buildup of phosphorus in the top 2, 3 inches,” he said. “During a rain event, we see dissolved phosphorus coming off in higher levels than we used to.

“And the algae loves that stuff.”

Blue-green algae

The effects of too many nutrients in a body of water can be more subtle than the deaths of 218,000 fish.

Sometimes you need a different perspective. Satellite photos of Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie taken during the summer of 2015 showed an insidious neon green cloud staining the water.

Officials blamed heavy spring rains for washing fertilizers — some of it from applications of liquid manure on farm fields — into the lakes, providing nutrients that sparked blooms of blue-green algae.

The algae produce microcystins, a toxin that in large quantities can cause skin rashes or liver damage.

Todd Steele, a professional bass angler, was sick for three months after getting the blue-green algae on his skin during back-to-back bass tournaments in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie at the end of July last summer.

“Just from handling the fish, landing them and putting them into my live well, that water got on my skin and into my system,” he said.

Steele said he started feeling extremely lightheaded after the Lake Erie tournament.

“And then when I got home, the next morning when I woke up I could barely get out of bed,” he said. “I was so lightheaded I could barely stand up. That was when my wife rushed me to the hospital.

“I broke out in hives. My body looked like I rolled around in poison ivy from head to toes.”

He said he lost the ability to sweat, which spiked his core body temperature to dangerous levels.

“I was right on the edge of having a stroke,” he said.

The illness kept him from getting outside, or on the water, for the rest of the summer and into the fall, he said.

“A lot of that was taking place, not to point fingers, on the Canadian side up the Thames River,” he said. “You could see it coming right out of the Thames River.”

Steele said he’s feeling better and intends to go back to fishing in tournaments, including an upcoming walleye tournament.

“Right now I have a clean bill of health, thank God,” he said.

Future farmers

Both Campbell and Berlew said farmers should follow best management practices and create comprehensive manure management plans.

“You are tracking exactly how much manure your livestock are producing,” Campbell said, noting large operators must have at least six months' storage.

She said farmers also should follow Jim Reid’s example and identify areas such as land in proximity to ditches or steep slopes where liquid manure should not be applied and test both the manure and the land for nutrients.

“If the nutrient level is too high, you can’t apply on that field anymore until the levels go down,” Campbell said.

The farm bureau, she said, encourages its members to become certified through the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program.

Berlew said heavy rain in June contributed to the lakes’ blue-green algae woes in 2015.

“When you have a 5-inch rainfall event in the fields, it’s hard to keep those nutrients in the field,” she said.

And there are other sources of nutrients, she said, including septic and sewer systems.

“There’s a lot of causes that need to be taken care of,” she said.

But Clift said one of the areas that needs to be taken care of is agriculture.

“You just look at the sheer number of animals in that Lake Erie Watershed,” he said.

“Their sewage as opposed to human sewage doesn’t go through a wastewater treatment plant … their stuff is just being spread on the ground.”

And Henning said perhaps it is time to look at returning to smaller dairy herds.

“There are 53,000 farmers in Michigan (52,194 according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development) and less than 300 CAFOs,” she said. “The small farmers have fed Michigan for centuries.

“To me, CAFOs are very bad because they are high fuel users, so many motors, trucking damage to the roads, and because of their size, it creates problems in the community.”

Bob Gross is a reporter for the Times Herald. Contact him at 810-989-6263 or rgross@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertGross477.