If all segments of agriculture were inspected as thoroughly as feedyards, it's less likely the industry would make periodic headlines. That aside, feedyards will soon be inspected more often based on increasingly stringent environmental guidelines.
New water and air quality regulations are still being determined by federal and state agencies, but all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) will be inspected based on them by 2005.
Harry Knobbe, owner of Harry Knobbe Feedyard in West Point, NE, is confident his 5,000-head yard will comply.
"In 1972, the Clean Water Act became law. It basically calls for zero discharge. Prior to that, all our waste water ran off," Knobbe says. "By 1974-75 we complied with the Act and, while it was a learning process, we realized it was the right thing to do from a standpoint of stewardship and business practices."
Establish A Track Record "However, there will be certain times during a decade, such as this year, when you can't comply with zero discharge," Knobbe says. "If you've established a track record where you've consistently maintained good stewardship practices, regulatory officials will generally give you credit for trying and work with you during extraordinary years. Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality officials inspect our yard and they've been fine to work with."
Knobbe's two lagoons do more than catch runoff. The water mixture from the lagoons is gravity-flowed into nearby cornfields. He notes there is a small amount of nutrient value in the mixture, though it's relatively insignificant.
Solids from the lagoon are applied about every other year on soybean fields.
"There is some value in the solids," Knobbe says, "But most of the time it costs 10 to 25 percent more than it's worth to haul it. I look at it like snow removal - it's part of the overhead."
Business Expense "Lagoons are great and they're nice to build when we have income," Knobbe says. "It hurts a lot more now when we don't have the income. But, you've got to look at the big picture. For example, if you've got $100,000 invested in the business and need $10,000 for a lagoon, you may need to sell land or equipment to pay for it. If you need the lagoon, you've got to have it and the most important thing right now is to be in business in the next six to eight months."
Knobbe says costs will vary considerably based on what water comes through a yard in addition to the yard water. He adds that the larger the operation, the more the per-head-basis cost will be.
"Right now, if you're in compliance with the Clean Water Act, you're 90 percent there," Knobbe says.
Look To The Future Jean Waters, director of the Pollution Prevention Institute at Kansas State University, doesn't disagree with Knobbe. However, the times are changing and changing quickly, she says. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims to reduce nutrient pollution from CAFOs and will issue permits for those with more than 750 head by 2005. Significantly increased enforcement comes with this package as well.
Waters says EPA is increasing its oversight of air quality, too.
"EPA is particularly concerned with particulate matter in the air," Waters says. "Particles less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) in size are respirable dust, which is absorbed into the lungs of humans and animals. Normal evacuation methods, such as coughing and sneezing don't eliminate the particles from the system."
Several cattle feeding organizations are currently working with EPA officials to help determine reasonable limits regarding feedyard regulation. It's not certain what the end results will be. Ross Wilson, government affairs director for Texas Cattle Feeders, says EPA officials are trying to be reasonable.
Enforcement/Involvement Once the standards are set, the issue isn't so much enforcement by EPA or state officials, Waters says.
"This issue is that a disgruntled employee or an irritated neighbor may file a complaint," she says. "This forces the regulatory agency to investigate whether or not the complaint is legitimate. This takes time and it may actually cost a feeder money from fines, required improvements or both.
"Right now is when feeders can make a difference in upcoming air quality regs," Waters says. "Work with your association as it works with EPA to get accurate information before setting standards. This is the time to be cooperating with officials to help create livable regulatory policies."
What To Do Can you get ahead of officials and begin implementing systems to help improve air quality? Yes and no. Yes, you can begin improving air quality, but don't guess what the final standards will be, Waters says.
"I probably wouldn't spend a lot of money now," she says. "Instead, use best management practices (BMPs) to get the most from what you have. In other words, go for the low-hanging fruit first."
Waters adds there are several low-cost measures to enhance air quality around your feedyard. You can:
* Enhance the efficiency of the feed mill.
* Sprinkle and water pens.
* Water roads.
"As far as dust level in pens, I wouldn't make a decision just now based on pending regulations," Waters says. "But, if you can justify improvement from an animal health or worker safety standpoint, do it."
Justification Ward Feedyard, Larned, KS, has improved the health of cattle in the yard and the attitude of neighbors in the last three years by sprinkling the yard.
Lee Borck, president, says the 167-riser sprinkler system has been quite the management tool for cattle.
"Since we installed the system in the spring of 1996, we've found that respiratory deaths are almost an exception in the summer and in high dust times," Borck says. "In addition, we can cool the yard 3degrees to 5degrees F on a 95degrees F day.
"We've also been able to maintain consumption on the cattle through the summer and avoid the typical summer drop. It especially benefits the high-stress cattle and those in the sick pen by keeping them cooler."
Borck describes the system much like a computer-controlled golf course watering system, located above ground with 10- to 12-ft. risers. Watering guns the same size as those on a pivot irrigation system deliver water to 90% of the yard's pen space. Borck says the system cost about $25/head capacity.
Good Neighbors This animal management tool was actually installed as part of being a good neighbor. Some residents in the nearby town of Larned had complained that dust and odor from the feedyard were a problem. Since they were part of the community and wanted to continue doing business there, Borck and his team cleared the way to install the system.
"Construction required more than 50,000 ft. of PVC pipe of two to six inches in diameter," Borck says. "In addition there's more than three-quarters of a million feet of underground wiring.
"The system is radio-controlled so we can turn on the water in a particular pen if needed," Borck adds. "We're generally pumping about 600 gal. a minute, running four to six risers at a time in three- to four-minute cycles, watering from the apron to the back alley. It takes about three and a half to four hours to cover the entire yard.
"There are extra benefits, too," Borck says. "We can put an odor control agent in the water through a chemigation system. This gives us great success with controlling the odor level in the yard. Plus, we can run fly spray through the system and control any fly outbreaks we may have."
It's not trouble-free, though.
"Our biggest enemies are lightning and late freezing," he says. "A late freeze can damage diaphragms and boosters, but we've managed to work around that. We've added heavier surge protectors, but any time there's danger of an electrical storm, we physically disconnect the electrical panel."
Other enemies have somewhat retreated, Borck says.
"The community reaction has been very positive. We've actually had letters from residents who've gone to the Department of Health and Environment complimenting us. People are realizing we're trying to be a good neighbor," Borck says.
Let Community Know Now is a prime time to let your community know about the good sides of the feedyard business.
"It's in the interest of business to let people know about the low impact feedyards have on the environment," Waters says. "Put a good PR program in place to tell your story. A lot of what residents may understand is the result of miscommunication. Be responsive. When you're in the coffee shop, let folks know what you do." (Editor's note: See BEEF Feeder, April, 1998 and June, 1998 for public relations tips.
"Be proactive. Work with your associations and market the fact you're environmentally responsible," Waters says. "Don't just do what it takes."