Sunday, March 24, 2024

Environmental and Water Insecurity: Satellites and AI Spotlight Illegal Manure Spreading March 2024

In Wisconsin, Satellites Spotlight Illegal 

Manure Spreading

AAFTER A FRESH February snow, a satellite about the size of a shoebox, busy snapping photographs as it circuited the planet at 17,000 miles per hour, captured something dark in Wisconsin.

About 56 tons of livestock bedding and manure had been spread atop Mark Zinke’s frozen alfalfa field.

The image eventually appeared on the computers of Stanford University researchers, who relayed it to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Zinke, a Brownsville dairy farmer who cares for a herd of more than 1,300 cows, had forgotten about the whole thing until he later heard from the agency.

“Oh s—,” he recalled thinking at the time. “I guess we f—ed up. We gotta man up to it, right?”

Imagery collected by inexpensive satellites is ushering in an era of real-time monitoring. Some environmental advocates want the department to look down from the sky as it regulates livestock manure, a potential water contamination source.

Scientists from Stanford’s Regulation, Evaluation and Governance Lab are analyzing troves of aerial photographs to teach computers to recognize when farmers butter the land with livestock poop during the winter, a largely restricted but suspectedly pervasive practice in America’s Dairyland.

The research relies upon machine learning, an artificial intelligence process in which computers identify patterns to make predictions and decisions, and constellations of commercial satellites that scan Earth’s surface daily. The orbiters photographed the large farms — known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — during snowy Wisconsin winters. Policymakers consider a livestock farm a CAFO if it houses at least 1,000 “animal units,” the equivalent of 714 dairy cows or 2,500 pigs.

Typically, the ground is frozen or snow-covered for 100 to 140 days each Wisconsin winter. Applying manure atop it heightens the risk of runoff, which can contaminate water, spread pathogens, seed algae blooms, and kill fish.

Some environmental advocates want the state to look down from the sky as it regulates livestock manure, a potential water contamination source.

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