The following is part of a series featuring the results of 2017 student research on water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed:
The livestock farming industry has gone through a significant transformation in previous decades. Production has progressed from smaller, family-owned farms to large scale farms that regularly have corporate contracts. A majority of meat and dairy products are now being produced on large farms with single species buildings or open air enclosures.
When reviewing existing data on agricultural operations, I noticed that there was minimal information about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or the current policies being implemented in regards to them. In addition, few have addressed the ways in which the industry has been challenged to improve or the cumulative effects of unregulated small livestock operations.
If we hope to improve water quality, we must put CAFOs in context and take into consideration all the various factors that affect how farmers — large and small — affect water quality, as well as the limits to current environmental protection resources and how we can go about expanding them.
Why has the number of smaller dairies farm decreased while the number of CAFOs has increased? There are fewer small dairies for a variety of reasons:
Owners have limited resources or capital to stay in the business
Some operators experience lower efficiency at smaller scales
Some farmers want to avoid the stress of working 24/7 by either getting out or expanding and hiring help
Some small dairies simply have no successor.
The owners of larger operations explained to me why they sought to expand — the ability to make more profit, the opportunity to become more efficient, and the capability to have more time off and vacation time.
The growth of larger animal operations has led to public concern and a variety of actions and discussions aimed at changing policies and taking steps to protect water quality from the potential effects of large operations.
Study group report
Recently, a report was developed by members of the Dunn County Livestock Operations Study Group (LOSG). Observing its meetings, it is clear that the group effectively included participants representing a cross-section of stakeholders and those with an interest in the impacts of CAFOs on groundwater, surface water, and air quality within the county.
They reviewed current ordinances and weighed revisions to existing ordinances against the creation of a new Livestock Facilities Zoning Ordinance — taking into account existing federal, state and county regulations about waste management of large livestock operations, including nutrient management plans that regulate the discharge of pollutants from livestock production facilities and monitor the spreading of them.
While Wisconsin has implemented conservation standards for all farms, it is the counties that are mainly held accountable for implementing them.
Under the current state law, the obligation of smaller operations to comply with many environmental regulations is only activated upon accepting an offer of cost-sharing. Large livestock operations, on the other hand, must meet applicable permit standards, regardless of whether or not they accept cost-sharing.
In some ways, this makes perfect sense. The scale and impact of potential environmental damage from poorly-managed farms is greater when the farm in question is a large one. For example, there are several examples of disasters in Wisconsin from large manure spills.
It is vitally important to make sure these regulations are strong, while including the views of those who will be subject to them. It is also important for counties and the DNR to be able to enforce regulations. The LOSG has taken steps towards ensuring that these protections are in place.
Two-pronged approach needed
At the same time, there is also a need to address the potential impacts of smaller farms. Although conservation needs greatly exceed cost-share funding, some funds go unspent for lack of voluntary sign-ups. Sometimes problems are not addressed, either due to a lack of funds or a lack of participation.
There is a need for a two-pronged approach. County departments need personnel and budgets for education and to build relationships with small farmers. This is time-intensive work that needs resources.
There is also a need to increase cost-sharing budgets, over time as interest increases, so that all smaller farmers have the opportunity to make improvements to their operations where needed.
Community members should support government agencies like the Land and Water Conservation Department because their actions have great power to influence land-use and agricultural practices. They are a key link in efforts to improve water quality.
Developing relationships between farmers and governmental agencies is crucial, and these agencies need our support. It’s also essential to reach out to younger individuals who are interested in agriculture or those taking over an existing operation to educate them about the benefits of using agricultural practices for environmental sustainability. Organizations like 4-H could play a role in these efforts as well.
Overall, during my time in Menomonie this summer, I witnessed a community that has worked to include a variety of viewpoints and needs while dealing with an important environmental issue. More work is still needed, but the groundwork for respectful dialogue and effective solutions has already been laid.