Feedlots generate dust, odor and mountains of manure. And when it rains, feedlots produce runoff that could pollute local water supplies. Those facts make feedlots prime targets for both federal regulators and neighbors who may not like agriculture much to begin with.
Clashes with both regulators and angry neighbors are likely to increase because feedlots are getting bigger and more city residents are moving to the country. One indication of the future came earlier this year when the Clinton Administration proposed tough new measures to regulate large feeders in the cattle, hog, chicken and turkey industries.
The proposal includes more environmental inspections and new waste control guidelines for cattle feeders by December 2002. If the measures take effect, some feeders will face added expense and unpleasant run-ins with regulators. But other feeders have already taken steps to lick their environmental problems and have found environmental solutions sometimes also make good business sense.
One such operation is the Ward Feedyard, a 25,000-head lot in south central Kansas. Ward's owners took the environment into account when they selected a site that drains away from the Arkansas River, located about a mile away.
Since then, the feedyard has made a series of moves that make environmental and business sense. For example, runoff that flows into its lagoons is immediately pumped on the fields of Ward's 7,000-acre farming operation. That eliminates odor and adds nitrogen to the fields. And it eliminates work: if the lagoons are drained quickly, they don't have to be cleaned as often. The fields also provide an outlet for the feedlot's manure. The farming operation in turn produces corn and other cattle feed.
Despite such measures, the Ward operation still found itself in hot water with some of its neighbors. The problem was dust. Old timers in south central Kansas weren't alarmed by it. But Ward is located two miles from Larned, home to a local state mental hospital which employs about 1,100 workers. A few years ago, the hospital substantially expanded operations and brought in new workers from elsewhere who weren't used to feedlots, or feedlot dust.
"These people have become more and more demanding that the air be free of dust and free of odor," says Lee Borck, Ward's co-owner and president. "We knew if we were going to coexist, we were going to have to find a solution."
Ultimately, Ward settled on a computer-controlled network of elevated sprinklers that coat the pens, and the backs of cattle, with water mist. The system operates on a fine balance. It puts out enough water to hold down dust, but not enough to create mud. The system was built by Silver Creek Irrigation, of Picabo, ID.
But the system was neither cheap nor easy to install. It required 750,000 feet of underground wiring, 50,000 feet of underground pipe and 167 risers that deliver water from 10 to 12 feet above ground.
Water to operate the system had to be pumped from Ward-owned land five miles away since the feedyard's state-controlled water allotment wouldn't allow for the water needed to run the dust control system. The cost was $625,000, or about $25 a head.
The system solved the dust problem, but it did much more. With less dust, cattle deaths from respiratory illness dropped dramatically. The mist also took the edge off summer heat, dropping temperatures three to six degrees. With lower temperatures, cattle ate more in the heat of the summer and put on more weight.
The combination of lower mortality and better weight gain is expected to generate cash to pay off the system in 311/42 to four years. After that, the benefits of dust control will boost the bottom line.
Feedyard officials also took one more step. They pushed public relations, inviting all comers to see the environmental progress they had made. After all, solving the problem is only half the battle. The other half is winning public support. Over time, Ward hosted the city's mayor, council members and the general public.
Of course, some opponents wouldn't come. "Those who are most opposed to us have refused an invitation," says Borck. But plenty of others accepted. And here, Ward scored points. "Those who have visited," says Borck, "have become supporters of our environmental programs."
Swine feedlot lagoons tend to smell better in the heat of the summer. An Iowa State University graduate student seized on that fact and found out why. The answer may help cattle feedlots solve lagoon odor problems.
Young S. Do, a microbiology student, found summer odors in swine feedlot lagoons were reduced by the presence of a bacteria identified as rhodobacter PS9. In laboratory tests, the bacteria degraded a variety of odor-causing compounds found in lagoons, including fatty acids. Do says seeding lagoons with the bacteria may help cut unwanted smells.
While Do's research applied to swine lagoons, he said rhodobacter PS9 bacteria may also curtail cattle lagoon odors because the odor causing compounds found in both types of lagoons are similar.
Cattle produce more than 1.2 billion tons of manure each year, and nobody knows quite what to do with it all. The disposal problem is biggest for large feedlots that produce huge amounts of manure in a small area.
Nearby farms often don't want manure. They'd rather use chemical fertilizers that are easier to apply. Even if local farmers want manure, the supply often overwhelms demand. And the old solution of spreading manure thickly on any available land is out. Environmental regulators frown on excessive land applications because unused nutrients can pollute water supplies.
Still, manure has value. "Farmers all recognize the value of manure," says Dan Walters, associate professor of soil science at the University of Nebraska. "There's so much carbon added to the soil with manure. It elevates organic matter. We've lost about 50 percent of the stored carbon content in the Midwest over the last 100 to 150 years."
One solution to the supply and demand problem is to transport manure where it's needed. But that's expensive. And farmers may not want raw manure because its nutrient analysis varies widely, it may be filled with weed seeds and it's hard to spread. It takes 30 tons of manure to deliver 200 pounds of nitrogen to an acre of cropland, says Walters. It would take only 240 pounds of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer to do the same.
One solution to that dilemma is composting, which eliminates odor, kills weeds, and decreases weight by removing water from raw manure. Compost is also easier to spread. One drawback: it's expensive to run a sizeable composting operation.
The trick, says Walters, is for feeders to market manure or compost so that consumers see the value of using it and are willing to pay the transportation cost to more distant locations. Feeders must also take care of peripheral marketing issues such as guaranteed nutrient analysis and delivering the product when farmers want it.
"I think that's where the business is going to have to go," he says. "As long as regulations limit the amount of manure you can apply to soil and the frequency with which you can apply it, you're going to have to increase the land mass you apply it to."
If you want to head off environmental problems, pay particular attention to where you build your feedlot.
"If you move yourself away from the population when you build a new lot, obviously that's going to help with the neighbors in terms of dust and odor," says Todd Milton, a feedlot specialist at the University of Nebraska.
"But you still want to make sure you're in an area where there's no chance of surface water contamination," Milton says. "If you're 20 miles from the nearest population center, you still don't want to build close to a river. Even though you may control runoff and never have a problem, you'll still be under greater scrutiny from environmental regulators."
Avoiding water bodies will be particularly important since proposed federal regulations focus heavily on animal waste as a source of water pollution. This represents a major environmental policy shift. Up to now, the primary emphasis has been on controlling industrial pollution.
But the Environmental Protection Agency recently served notice that agriculture is the next target. "Rural and urban runoff accounts for more than half of all water pollution," says EPA Administrator Carol Browner. "And runoff from animal feeding operations in particular has been associated with threats to human health and the environment."