Just how many cows does Yakima County have?

Estimates that have been used in public forums include 127,000, 213,000 and 318,000.

Counting cows around here is not as simple as it might seem.

“No matter what number you throw out there, nobody’s going to like it,” said Lori Crowe, manager of the South Yakima Conservation District.

The best answer may just be 212,762, based on the most recent agricultural census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That includes everything — dairy cows, beef cows, calves, bulls and steers, giving Yakima County 20 percent of the state’s cows and more than any other county. Grant County is second at 165,000 with Whatcom County third at 96,000.

All sorts of cow numbers get thrown around in public debates over their environmental impact — namely air and water pollution — and the policies that should be enacted to regulate those impacts.

Dairies and feedlots are scrutinized over dust, ammonia, flies and manure production, so knowing how many cows there are helps regulators quantify and measure those problems and set standards.

Contention over the number of cows came up during recent discussions of the Yakima Clean Air Agency, which has a pilot program to reduce dairy air emissions through a variety of voluntary management techniques.

Environmentalist Jan Whitefoot of Concerned Citizens of the Yakama Reservation has been arguing at the agency’s board meetings that the agency is taking a misleading and narrow view of the problem by only measuring emissions from dairy cows. According to the most recent state Department of Agriculture tally, there are 126,802 dairy cows in the county, which Whitefoot says is an undercount because it doesn’t include beef cattle or nonmilkers.

“What we’re saying is that’s wrong for public health … because it misleads the public into thinking the air is cleaner than it really is,” Whitefoot said.

All cattle emit gasses, therefore all should be measured, she said.

The air agency counts dairy cows in devising an air chemistry monitoring plan and program to reduce emissions because most of the complaints the organization receives involve dairies, said Dave Caprille, a spokesman for the air agency. Officials never claimed to track all air pollution.

“We’re trying to do a good job in one area,” Caprille said. “We’re not pleasing everyone.”

So far, about 24 dairy facilities representing 79,281 cows — 62.5 percent of the dairy cows — have volunteered for the emission control program, Caprille said.

Whitefoot acknowledges she was wrong recently to say publicly and through her widely circulated emails that the county is home to 318,647 cattle.

“I apologize,” she said in a telephone interview, though she stands by her argument that the air agency should base its work on all cattle, not just dairy cows.

Turns out she made a counting mistake that others have too: adding together subcategories from a 2007 Yakima County grant application that referred to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

It’s a common mistake, said Matthew Pautler, an agricultural statistician with the Washington office of the federal National Agriculture Statistics Service. Figures on the statistic service’s website are displayed in long spreadsheets of categories within categories within categories that can be confusing, he said.

The statistics agency collects its number during a census every five years similar to the once-a-decade U.S. Census population count. Farmers mail in census forms or get a visit from a census worker, Pautler said.

Adding further confusion to the number of cows in the county is a patchwork of regulatory jurisdiction by state environmental agencies.

The state Department of Agriculture only oversees dairies, counting the milk cows through registrations. The department also looks at manure management plans filed by dairy owners with the conservation districts.

State and conservation district officials know how many cows each of those dairies have but don’t share it with the public. State law treats head counts on individual dairies as proprietary trade information, fueling mistrust from environmentalists such as Whitefoot.

Some dairy owners say they are not trying to hide anything.

“It’s not like we’re being secretive,” said Dan DeRuyter, co-owner of George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy. He said he milks 4,500 cows at his family’s facility north of Sunnyside. Nearby Cow Palace has about 7,000 head, said co-owner Adam Dolsen.

George DeRuyter & Sons is one of 24 dairies participating in the voluntary emission reduction program.

Complicating the picture, dairies on Yakima Nation-governed lands, no matter who owns them, are not required to report to the state Agriculture Department, while only four dairies on the Yakama Reservation out of 70-plus countywide submit manure management plans to the conservation districts.

“The tribe doesn’t report to us, we don’t know how many cows are on tribal land,” said Virginia Prest, program manager for animal health and a former employee in the nutrient management program.

Confused? There’s more.

According to Prest, many government estimates dealing with manure don’t even count animals at all, instead counting “animal units” based on a weight. The thinking is, the larger the animal, the more manure.

One animal unit equals 1,000 pounds, about the size of a beef cow, Prest said. Dairy cows run about 1.4 times that size, while you may need three or four pigs to make one animal unit.

Meanwhile, animals give birth and die every day, making a definitive count a moving target.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to have an exact figure,” said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or rcourtney@yakimaherald.com.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the ownership of the George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy.