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Minimal dairy antibiotics reach groundwater

A wide range of antibiotics given to dairy cows routinely end up on the ground and in manure lagoons, but are mostly broken down before they reach groundwater, according to a new study.

The findings should help alleviate longstanding fears that dairy farms, and the fields fertilized with their waste, might lead to large-scale groundwater contamination.

“What we found is that antibiotics can frequently be found at the manure-affected surfaces of the dairy operation (such as corrals and manure flush lanes) but generally degrade in the top 12 inches of soil,” says Thomas Harter, an expert on the effects of agriculture on groundwater quality and chairman for Water Management and Policy at University of California at Davis.

“A very small amount of certain antibiotics do travel into shallow groundwater. Our next task is to determine whether these particular antibiotics are further degraded before reaching domestic and public water wells.”

The study provides the first comprehensive data set to assess and compare potential local impacts to groundwater from the wide variety of antibiotics in use on “freestall” dairy farms, where cows are free to enter and leave resting cubicles rather than being confined in stanchions or pens.

The study was published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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