Upon entering the milk parlour for the first time I expected my ears to be assaulted by a cacophony of cow moos, but instead all I could hear was the rush of pressurized water spraying in great volume. Stepping closer I was able to make out shapes of men at work through the mist that hung between the rows of milking machines and it was then that I hesitated, noticing for the first time the flood of soiled brown water rushing past me into drains and disappearing beneath the floor. On the safety of the raised rubberized mats I continued cautiously forward.
“Hello? I’m looking for Graciela?”
Graciela was to be my guide at the Hudson Dairy in southern Michigan and somewhere inside she was waiting for my arrival.
It was cleaning time in the milking parlour and all hands were busy rinsing the floor of trampled muck and manure left by several hundred cows. This was the first sight that welcomed me upon arrival at the Hudson, Michigan while on assignment for Canadian Geographic and it was immediate evidence of the importance of water in livestock farming.
Twenty-four hours a day the operation cycles 3,100 (of 3,400) cows through three milkings each explains Graciela after she finally tracked me down. One hundred of the cows are milked every eight minutes, producing over 100,000 litres of milk daily; an impressive amount of product with a daunting amount of animal waste produced in the process. In the milking parlour, where the cows dutifully line up to be relieved of their burden three times daily, every effort is made to keep the milking apparatus sterile. A significant part of this is ensuring that the floors are cleaned on a regular basis, and that takes water–lots of water.
It’s hard to imagine exactly how much water runs through a facility of this scale without seeing some of it “en masse.” And so, in a nearby building I was shown the dairy’s environmental process for recycling sand and separating manure into solids and liquids. Inside, a serpentine river of brown sludge winds its way through the system, allowing gravity to do some of the work. The flow is part of the estimated 30 gallons of water needed per animal each day at the dairy. That’s over 100,000 gallons of water daily.
Adjacent to the “mud room” as I dubbed it, the machinery takes on a different look. This is the newest addition to Hudson Dairy’s environmental efforts; the livestock wastewater recycling plant that the company has invested nearly two million dollars into. It takes the wastewater from the previous process and takes it to an entirely new level of clean. “The idea is to treat the manure like a municipal wastewater treatment facility where we can return about 60% of the water to potable use,” explains Director of Public Affairs Bill Harke on the company website. The treated water could potentially be used again by humans, but instead will be reused within the facility to keep it clean and the cows watered.
Ross Thurston who invented the Livestock Water Recycling (LWR) system, and is the person I’m here to photograph, has reportedly drank the clean water coming out of his system! After walking around in the cow muck all day I’m not sure I would be so confident.
Dairy farm employee Juan Chavez washes down the floors at Hudson Dairy in Hudson, Michigan – immediate evidence of the importance of water in livestock farming. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)
Hudson Dairy's Manure Treatment System takes the wastewater from the previous process to an entirely new level of clean. The treated water could potentially be used again by humans, but instead will be reused within the facility to keep it clean and the cows watered. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)