Mercy For Animals drone investigation reveals Wisconsin cheese industry’s dirty secret

Manure from industrial dairy farms contaminates groundwater, threatens safety of drinking water

KEWAUNEE COUNTY, Wisc. (Oct. 19, 2023) — Mercy For Animals has released a drone video investigation exposing how the Wisconsin cheese industry, despite marketing itself with idyllic imagery, relies heavily on industrial-scale factory farms with hundreds or thousands of cows and millions of gallons of manure. The new aerial drone footage shows how more than a dozen Wisconsin dairy farms store manure in open pits — some of which are located near residential neighborhoods. 

“It makes me very angry that, for what we did to make our home a place for the family, it’s being destroyed,” said Arlin Karnopp, a resident of dairy-heavy Kewaunee County whose drinking water has turned brown and tested positive for nitrates and E. coli. “When [our grandchildren] come, they brush their teeth with water that we buy and wash their face, and if there’s anything we cook, we cook with bottled water. … You spend so much money to build a house and work on it, and then you can’t drink the water.”

The investigation shows consumers how production of dairy cheese not only inflicts suffering on cows but creates environmental and public health concerns for humans:

—The footage captures the staggering scale of the farms, their storage of bacteria-rich manure in open pits, and their proximity to residential neighborhoods.
—A 2021 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that drinking water contaminated by cow feces causes hundreds of cases of acute gastrointestinal illness annually in Kewaunee County alone.
—The Wisconsin dairy industry has rapidly industrialized. According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, from 1997 to 2017, the percentage of cows in “mega dairy” facilities (defined as confining 500 or more cows) rose from 3% to 41%. The facilities are so large that they constitute a small percentage of Wisconsin’s dairy farms but contain nearly half of the state’s cows.

“Wisconsin’s dairy industry would like to present itself as a string of modest farms, each with a few beloved cows — but this investigation from Mercy For Animals shatters that illusion,” said drone pilot Mark DeVries. “In crystal-clear drone footage, we see seemingly endless rows of industrial calf hutches and massive waste lagoons typical of Wisconsin’s ‘mega dairies’ that contaminate local groundwater and cause illness in the state’s residents. Open pools of waste are the norm in Wisconsin — as cows, the environment, and neighboring communities suffer.”

Americans love cheese — U.S. cheese consumption has more than doubled over the past 40 years, according to the USDA. And Wisconsin is the country’s top cheese producer, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture

Cows used in the dairy industry have been selectively bred to produce unnaturally large quantities of milk, and the milking process is largely automated, with machines attached to the cows’ udders. One of the most serious consequences is the high rate of mastitis, a painful inflection that can also lead to increased levels of pus in the cows’ milk.

Factory farming is the biggest cause of animal suffering on the planet. Like humans and other mammals, cows must give birth to begin producing milk. Farmers separate babies from their mothers soon after birth, and both mothers and babies suffer — as demonstrated by mothers’ attempts to prevent their babies from being taken and by mothers and babies calling to each other after separation.

Notes to Editors

For more information or to schedule an interview with DeVries or Karnopp, contact Robin Goist at [email protected].  

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at