WORTHINGTON -- With the high cost of tillable land, many farmers who want to improve their profit margins in agriculture today are turning to livestock production.
In recent years, Nobles County Environmental Services has seen a deluge of development in pork production, cattle feeding and expanded dairies. With those expansions come concerns for managing manure, as was the case during a recent county planning and zoning meeting, when a producer appeared before the commission due to manure flow into an intermittent stream.
The producer was deemed to have a non-compliant feedlot, but just how many feedlots in the county with that designation isn't known. It is thought to be a relatively low number.
"A vast majority are in compliance," said Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Ed Lenz, who works with Nobles County Environmental Services Director Wayne Smith and County Feedlot Officer Al Langseth to correct problem feedlot sites locally.
"A lot of our feedlots are fully contained hog facilities or beef facilities under roof," Lenz said, adding that a few of the older sites have some manure issues that are being addressed.
Last month, Nobles County Planning Commission members discussed improvements needed on the Verlyn Timmer cattle feedlot near Ellsworth. There, manure runs off the feedlot, particularly after a rain, and flows into an intermittent stream.
Timmer has already begun work to correct the issue. Later this month, the Planning Commission will face two more producers who operate non-compliant feedlots.
Both the county and the SWCD are working with producers to correct the problems, and would rather see the sites improved than enforce compliance.
"Producers that are out of compliance with the Nobles County Feedlot Ordinance (are committing) misdemeanors and they're punishable each and every day as a misdemeanor," Smith explained. "The enforcement tools are there, but we'd rather work with producers to come into compliance."
"We definitely would rather fix the issue," Langseth added. "If a person is willing to come in and admit he has a problem -- that's the kind of producer we'd like to see."
"But, there are producers who don't want to spend any money -- don't want to do anything," Smith said. "They want to keep doing what they're doing, but what they're doing isn't acceptable.
"The saying, 'My manure only goes down river when it rains' isn't an acceptable answer," he added.
Smith said the county feedlot rules haven't changed in recent years -- at issue is awareness of the rules.
"You can't put an indefinite amount of livestock on your acreage and let the manure run off on your neighbor's property," he said. "When you put another 25 percent head (on the property), now you have a situation that's not as comfortable."
"What worked for Grandpa doesn't work today," added Langseth.
In Nobles County, particularly, a lot of farms were established near creeks or streams, and it's those farms that are being closely monitored for manure run-off.
"The same site, a mile away, is perfectly in compliance," Lenz said. "It's the location."
"There's a few out there that are not where they need to be," Smith added.
While Langseth said many of the problem farms have had fixes -- from construction of solid retaining walls to filter strips -- there is more work to be done to bring other farms into compliance.
In Nobles County, livestock producers with 10 or more animal units are required to register their feedlots. In addition, they need a permit for any type of expansion, whether it's adding a building or adding more animal units.
More often than not, producers who are simply adding animals don't realize they need to report it, and it may not be discovered by the county until the feedlot is up for review. In Nobles County, a feedlot operator must re-register his site every four years.
Smith said the feedlot license helps the county ensure producers are adhering to the feedlot ordinance.
"You can be compliant one day and out of compliance the next day because you got more animal units," he cautioned. "A few livestock may pose an insignificant problem ... but in the expansion process, a small problem becomes a bigger problem."
Nobles County began registering feedlots in 1995 through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's delegated feedlot program. Due to the number of feedlots here, an agreement was established with the MPCA to have the inspections performed by local staff. The funds received through that delegation cover Langseth's position as county feedlot officer.
Through his job, Langseth utilizes a University of Minnesota-developed feedlot program, MinnFarm (Minnesota Feedlot Annualized Runoff Model), to calculate pollutant loading from feedlots. It identifies the amount of manure generated at a particular feedlot and assesses the land the feedlot sits on.
Langseth said the program takes into account feedlot density, slope and water that flows into the lot from building roofs and yards, as well as discharge points.
"Last summer we saw hardly any pollution problems out there at all because it was so doggone dry," Langseth said. "(This year) you see things differently from day to day."
For years, the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District has worked with Southwest Prairie Technical Service Area to provide engineering assistance to design and improve feedlots that have problems or are out of compliance.
Funded in part by Minnesota's Board of Water and Soil Resources and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Southwest Prairie TSA has two engineers that work within the region.
"The Southwest Prairie TSA is available at no cost to the producer," said Lenz, adding that the TSA conducts site assessments at the request of his office. "If there is a problem, they will try to find the lowest cost alternative to fix the site."
In the last five years, Southwest Prairie TSA has worked with nearly 40 producers in Nobles County, although there are dozens more who get the assistance they need from the SWCD office. Suggestions like closing off a lot or seeding some grass are all that is needed to bring some livestock feedlots into compliance.
The SWCD, working with Southwest Prairie TSA, has helped to find cost-share assistance for those producers to complete projects necessary to bring their sites into compliance.
"A lot of the low-cost fixes we can address locally or through a watershed district," Lenz said. "We also have federal EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program), which is well-used in the county for fixes and improvements."
Cost-share is typically offered at a 75 percent grant-25 percent producer cost ratio for feedlot fixes. If a producer plans to incorporate other improvements, those must be done at his own expense.
Lenz said cost-share projects completed by Nobles County livestock producers have ranged from $5,000 to more than $400,000.
"There are sites where the landowner puts $1 to $3 million in," Lenz said. "A lot of these guys see if they've got the contractor coming in ... why not do some extra work on the site in addition to the fix."
Producers with questions regarding feedlot compliance are encouraged to speak with Environmental Services or the SWCD office.
"People are welcome to come in and ask questions," Lenz said. "Sometimes they find out they can fix something for $2,000 and be in compliance.
"A lot of producers, after it's all done, are very pleased with how their entire operation has improved," he added.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.