Cows feed inside a barn at Dairy Dreams, a large-scale dairy operated by Don Niles in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/News21)

KEWAUNEE COUNTY, Wisc. – In 2014, a study by U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Mark Borchardt indicated that 40 of 131 residential wells sampled in Kewaunee County were contaminated with bovine feces.

Lynn Utesch, the founder of environmental advocacy group Kewaunee Cares, sees the presence of bovine feces in the water as coinciding with the expansion of large-scale dairy farms, known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations, in the area.

Kewaunee has 16 of these large-scale farms, with many of those managing thousands of cows – many more than the traditional farmers that once dominated the area.

Lee Luft, chairman of the Kewaunee County Groundwater Task Force, has been focusing on groundwater issues associated with large-scale dairy farming practices.

“We saw a very substantial increase in herd counts over the past 20 years or so,” he said. “In fact, Kewaunee County has seen the fastest herd growth of any county in the state by far.”

Luft explained that these large herds have exactly the impact one would imagine. “There ends up being high volumes of liquid manure” he said.

The concentration of feces – human and otherwise – has profound health implications. The contaminated groundwater is filled with coliform, E. coli and nitrates, which can lead to anything from serious bacterial infections to cancer.

“It definitely has an effect on our population in their health and the health for our children,” Utesch said.

Kewaunee Cares, which is made up of residents and small farmers, has focused on putting constraints on the practices of large farms in the county. These farms house between 1,000 and 6,000 cows in a handful of sheds across just 1 to 2 acres of a larger 40 to 60-acre lot.

That leaves behind high volumes of liquid manure concentrated on a small bit of land, making it more likely for that manure to seep down through the soil and into the groundwater.

Lynn Utesch unwinds fencing to stake around the pasture on his small dairy farm in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, before allowing his cows to graze. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/News21)

Utesch said he believes these large-scale farming practices are causing the contamination. His group continues to look at the effects of industrial agriculture, push the county to set requirements on farms for things like manure spreading and petition the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

On the other side, large farm owners point to residential septics as another source of feces, but they don’t entirely deny the role their manure plays.

Don Niles is the president of Peninsula Pride Farms, a watershed initiative in Kewaunee County made from an alliance of large farm owners. In an online mission statement, the group said it’s “committed to protecting, nurturing and sustaining our precious soil, water and air.”

“Agriculture plays a role in environmental challenges in our county,” Niles said. “We’re the major use of land, and we have the major responsibility.”

His operation uses a methane digester to treat waste from his cows. “We use things like methane digesters to create green power but also reduce the pathogens in the manure,” he said of the building-sized machine that cost him millions.

Don Niles, owner of Dairy Dreams farm in Wisconsin, stands along the center corridor in one of his barns, surrounded by hundreds of his cows. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/News21)

Still, Utesch said measures like this fall short, and the only solution is for these farms to take responsibility for specific wells their manure contaminates.

If residents can prove a specific farm contaminated their well, there is some legal recourse available. In situations like this, the Department of Natural Resources will intervene to compel the farm to pay for a replacement water source. Or residents can lodge a civil court case against the farm.

However, pinning contamination on a specific farm is complicated.

Jesse Jerabek, an architect in Kewaunee County, doesn’t own a single cow. In the short time after the expansion of Kinnard Farms down the road from him, he said his water became contaminated. While he feels the connection is obvious, proving it is another matter.

Borchardt said that requires technique called “microbial source tracking.” He explains that this method “could link a contamination event in a well to a particular farm,” and even more specifically “could link it to a particular cow.” The process matches animal DNA found in contaminated water to DNA in the manure on a farm.

Calves are tagged at Dairy Dreams, a large-scale dairy operated by Don Niles in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/News21)

But there’s a catch. To work, a farm needs to provide a manure sample, something that may go against its own interests.

Niles expressed doubts about the technique, which is used routinely by microbiologists. “Even if you found out that it was bovine, there (are) 100 plus farms in the county,” he said. “How would you necessarily know which farm it came from?”

Beyond this, Niles said he also hesitates because of the high cost of the test.

Niles said he hopes his efforts help make Kewaunee water safe down the road.

“We’re not slowing down our program. We’re speeding up,” he said. “I think it’s gonna take us a long ways.”