MADISON, Wis. (AP) — One of Wisconsin’s largest dairy operations has reached a settlement with state environmental regulators to that calls for the company to eventually stop spreading liquid manure in exchange for avoiding groundwater monitoring requirements.

The deal puts an end to a lawsuit that Kinnard Farms filed against the state Department of Natural Resources last year. Court documents show the settlement into effect Saturday. Kinnard Farms officials said the agreement was reached last month.

The Kinnard operation includes 16 industrial farms with about 8,000 cows. It has struggled with agricultural pollution for years as contaminants seeped into private wells. Kewaunee County has relatively shallow soil that does a poor job filtering water, making the area especially susceptible to groundwater contamination.

The operation filed a lawsuit in April 2022 after the DNR modified the company’s wastewater permit. The revisions called for the operation to limit the size of its herd to 11,369 cows and begin monitoring groundwater in areas contaminated with nitrate from manure spreading. Kinnard Farms officials argued that the business would suffer if they can’t expand their herd and groundwater monitoring would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Under the settlement, the DNR will impose groundwater monitoring requirements after four years if Kinnard Farms spreads untreated manure.

Under the settlement, Kinnard Farms plans to stop spreading liquid manure within four years. If Kinnard can’t meet that requirement, the DNR can impose groundwater monitoring requirements on fields that receive liquid manure.

The deal also sets out deadlines for Kinnard to install state-of-the-art technology to treat the manure to remove pathogens. If they fail to meet the deadlines, the DNR can immediately impose groundwater monitoring requirements. Kinnard will have to submit semi-annual progress reports on its efforts.

The settlement doesn’t address herd limitations. Kinnard withdrew its challenge to the limitation but the issue could come up again when Kinnard seeks permit renewal.

As part of our ongoing commitment to implement practices that are highly protective of our region’s precious water and soil resources, the Kinnard Farms family is excited about the opportunity to move forward with the installation of state-of-the-art manure management technology.

The installation of this technology, the first such in Wisconsin, is a game changer. It will transform liquid manure into three separate and pathogen-free products: clean water, dry organic fertilizer and an organic ammonia fertilizer. The technology will remove most of the truck traffic from our local roads and greatly reduce the need for long-term storage of liquid manure in lagoons. Removal of the water from the manure hastens our ability to increase our family’s already extensive use of regenerative agricultural practices, allowing us to plant cover crops and eliminate tillage on an even greater number of our fields. These practices are proven to regenerate soil health, prevent erosion and sequester carbon, and are highly protective of water quality.

This settlement agreement represents a breakthrough in recognizing the benefits of accommodating farmer-led innovation to drive science-based environmental solutions on Wisconsin dairies. In facilitating this settlement, the DNR deserves credit for recognizing the potential of the technology, the value of providing flexibility within a regulatory framework and the usefulness of collaboration. We also appreciate the willingness of the other parties in this agreement to come to the table in the pursuit of the common goal of protecting our precious water and soil resources.

Statement from Lee Kinnard of Kinnard Farms

DNR spokesperson Katie Grant didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Six Kewaunee County residents represented by environmental law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates joined the lawsuit in opposition to Kinnard Farms. The firm’s senior attorney, Dan Gustafson, said the settlement will help focus attention on the public health risks that large dairy operations pose in areas that are susceptible to groundwater and surface water pollution.

Kinnard and the state Justice Department in March settled a separate case dealing with allegations that the operation improperly spread manure in Kewaunee and Door counties between 2018 ad 2022. Kinnard agreed to pay the state $215,000 and upgrade waste storage facilities if a DNR review determines upgrades are needed.