Don't look now, that light in the distance could be a freight train of environmental regulation threatening to derail how some feedlots do business in the near future.

"The agricultural and livestock industries have an interesting environmental future ahead of them," says Tom Haren, vice president of Envirostock, a subsidiary of the Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) which helps producers comply to environmental regulations. "What happened to pork and poultry is a precursor, from marketing and integration to environmental regulation."

Obviously, this regulatory engine has been chugging toward and through feedlots for better than two decades, mostly as a vehicle for the Clean Water Act (CWA). Plenty of commercial yards already have reserved seating in the permit section, even if they don't like it, while other yards have yet to punch their tickets.

"We've had good regulations, but there has been little oversight and enforcement," says Haren. In Colorado, as well as a number of other states designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to administer federal laws - designed to protect surface and ground water - compliance programs have been self-implementing.

The laws are there, but no one is looking over a producer's shoulder to make sure they follow the law, unless someone files a complaint. But, increased public scrutiny is changing that.

In Nebraska, for example, legislation enacted last year requires all confinement feeding operations to request an inspection from the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to determine whether or not a permit is required. While some states base the potential need for permits on the number of animal units, Nebraska looks strictly at the risk to polluting waters of the state. In theory, that means four bucket calves tied behind the barn could be considered a feeding operation.

"The purpose of the stiffer regulations was to go after the larger operations and leave the smaller producers alone, and you can't really do that. The Clean Water Act doesn't allow you to discriminate. Whether you're feeding 20 head or 20,000, you may have to get a permit. Of course, smaller producers will be the least able to comply because of the cost," says Troy Bredenkamp, vice president of technical services for the Nebraska Cattleman (NC).

Using Agricultural Research Service statistics, Bredenkamp says there are approximately 5,600 cattle feedlots in the state. Of those, 600 have a one-time capacity of 1,000 head or more.

According to Renee Hancock, unit supervisor of the Nebraska DEQ, there are approximately 35,000 cattle, swine and dairy operations in the state. Of those, she says 94% have 1,000 head or fewer. To date, the agency has issued approximately 1,600 permits.

DEQ anticipates 20,000 inspection requests this year. Frankly, between that, routine inspections and new construction inspections, the new legislation places a daunting burden on a staff of 10 people. So, the reality is it may take them a while to find anyone who fails to request an inspection.

"For the smaller operations (under 1,000 head), we want to be able to, if possible, exempt them for waste control facilities and the need for a permit," says Hancock. And, rather than fine producers who are out of bounds, she says DEQ is more concerned about helping producers comply.

Currently, the NC and other groups are working to get an amendment passed that would exempt operations with fewer than 300 head from the inspection and permitting process. "Our approximation would be that this provision would eliminate 60-80 percent of all producers from having to request inspection," says Bredenkamp.

Upping The Ante Even if the amendment passes, some producers still face vexing challenges. Dean Settje of Settje Agri-Services and Engineering at Raymond, NE, says, "What they've inadvertently done is create a huge problem with the permitting process and the cost of compliance to producers." His firm designs facilities and management systems for producers that meet EPA specifications.

"The thing that really changed in the last 10 years is not only do you need to look at surface water but also ground water and nutrient management or non-point pollution," Settje says. "What do you do with the nutrients when you spread them? Are you doing it in a friendly manner?"

Permit applications that used to consist of a few pages now run 50-60 and must be approved by a professional engineer. As if that wasn't enough, a measure called Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations is being bandied about in Washington, DC. It looks beyond the point-source pollution defined in the CWA and seeks to regulate non-point sources as well.

Depending on the size of the operation and problems encountered, Settje estimates the cost of complying to current regulations ranges from $10,000 to $200,000 for operations that must obtain a permit. That includes everything from putting up dams to catch run-off, to building lagoons and developing irrigation systems for nutrient management (applying waste to surrounding fields). This estimate doesn't include the annual cost of compliance once a permit is issued.

For perspective, the owner of a 1,000-head yard called Settje recently. His bank requested the feedlot be inspected by DEQ. As it turns out, a permit is required. "He has 1,000 head and it will cost him $50,000 to come into compliance.

"You'll get the argument he should have been in compliance already, but from a practicality standpoint, the laws weren't always that way and they weren't enforced. Now the banker is forcing the issue.

"We're seeing a lot of that," says Settje. With costs in mind, he says "I think we'll see the closure of lots of small lots in the next five to six years, and the expansion of commercial cattle feeders."

Of course, that could place as much extra pressure as opportunity on larger feeders, even though they can dilute cost of compliance over more head. For one thing, you need enough land for waste management and application.

"Some feedlots are built next to a river, and they're landlocked on the other side by a county road, so there's no place to build a new lagoon without abandoning pens or buying land next door," says Settje.

But even money can't find extra ground in some places. Trevor Tuell, CLA director of natural resources says some cattle feeders along Colorado's front range have turned to composting manure to deal with the challenge.

Moreover, Bredenkamp explains if the cost of compliance forces larger yards to grow in order to accommodate capacity given up by smaller operations, sooner or later the same folks hollering at the hog industry will turn their gaze more intently upon cattle.

Taking The Bull By The Horns "If you want to be extremely technical, it would be rare not to have someone go in and find something wrong with most every operation. That doesn't mean they're polluting the environment. It means they may not have a form they need, or their logbook may not be up to date. A lot of the violations we're finding are bureaucratic ones," says Haren. Organizations like NC and CLA are helping lead members through self-assessments to pinpoint potential environmental problems.

Although compliance in Colorado is still self-implementing, Haren explains more feeders are making the investment.

"It's a liability. It's the same reason you get car insurance. Colorado, like most states, carries fines and penalties for violations. Now that the public is more aware, liability has increased," says Haren. "We are trying to encourage members to address it on their terms rather than on the regulator's terms."

That's the approach Drinnin Feedlots Inc. of Columbus, NE, took several years ago when they set out to build waste management facilities, allowing them to obtain state and federal permits. This is a 3,000-head-capacity yard.

Mike Drinnin explains, "We are within two miles of a watershed. The filtration system we had worked fine, but couldn't handle major rainfalls." He worked with NCA, Settje and DEQ to come up with a system that does. He estimates 2-5% of their daily cost goes toward environmental compliance.

Many producers view government as a threat, but Drinnin says Nebraska's DEQ has been excellent to work with. "They're helpful and responsive to our ideas ... If you're open and willing to work things out, they are willing to help," he says. What bothers Drinnin more than enforcement and the regulations themselves are the adversarial relationships emerging in the agricultural industry as a result of the environmental debate.

"One thing that concerns a lot of producers across the state is that we're evolving into a time when we have rural neighbors against rural neighbors. That's frightening to the agricultural industry as a whole," says Drinnin.

While it's convenient to lay blame for increased public scrutiny at the doorstep of other species, mega-operations or corporate ownership, the train left the station a long time ago.

"Bottom line, we are in an industry with the potential to impact our environment. There are a lot of common sense things that come into play, regardless of regulations," says Haren. "I think our industry needs to be aware we are responsible for fixing these things."