WORTHINGTON - While it still faces final approval from the Nobles County Board of Commissioners, a rewritten feedlot ordinance is hoped to ease confusion among farmers and make it easier for manure management officials to ensure land application of manure is being done correctly.

The county’s original feedlot ordinance dates back to March 1995, when then-zoning administrator Larry Gasow led a movement to get an ordinance on the books to “avoid problems.” At the time, legal action had been brought forth by private citizen groups in both Murray and Jackson counties.

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The county’s approval of the feedlot ordinance set several things in motion - Wayne Smith was named its Environmental Services Director, Alan Langseth was hired as the county’s Feedlot Officer and Nobles County became a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency-delegated county, meaning it received state reimbursement for conducting feedlot inspections.

Smith said the county initially received $14,000 per year for those inspections. Today, it gets $40,626 and is required to match 70 percent of that amount, or $28,000.

“It’s based on the number of feedlots in the county that meet certain criteria,” Smith explained.

The criteria is based on the number of animal units on feedlots or farms. Any farm that has more than 1,000 animal units - considered a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) - is required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the MPCA in Minnesota to operate. The NPDES permit ensures the livestock producer understands the rules for regulating point sources that can discharge pollutants into waters of the United States.

One of the requirements of the NPDES permit is that livestock producers have a manure management plan to prove where, when and how they are dispersing the manure.

The same management plan is required for feedlots and farms of 300 to 999 animal units. However, those plans are monitored by the county’s environmental services department.

Unlike CAFOs, the smaller farms “don’t have to turn that plan in every year,” said Langseth.

Nobles County currently has 56 feedlots of more than 1,000 animal units that are monitored every year by the state. Meanwhile, the county inspects approximately 46 feedlots per year, which represents 10 percent of the county’s total number of feedlots.

Mapping the manure

Andy Nesseth of EXTended Ag Services in Lakefield works daily with livestock producers on their manure management plans. He monitors their information, from the nutrient content of the manure to where the producer plans to spread or incorporate it on the land. It’s his job to make sure the farmer is following the rules when it comes to applying manure on sensitive areas.

“Each county … can define a sensitive feature however they want it,” Nesseth said. “What’s a sensitive feature in one county may not be in another.”

Differing definitions between counties - and even with the state’s 7020 feedlot rules - were cause for confusion.

“Just the definition of what constitutes a sensitive feature isn’t consistent in southwest Minnesota,” said Nesseth, who works with producers not just in this area, but across the state line into Iowa as well.

And the confusion spread from there.

Setback requirements were also different between Rock, Nobles, Murray and Jackson counties’ written rules.

“These (feedlot ordinances) were put together in the late 1990s - before we had a lot of information on what the appropriate measurements were,” Nesseth said. “We had to start somewhere.”

Smith, too, said he didn’t believe there was any science behind the setback requirements when they were established in Nobles County’s feedlot ordinance back in 1995.

“It could have been a consensus - arbitrary numbers that were picked out that seemed to make sense at that time,” he said.

Many surrounding counties developed their feedlot ordinance after Nobles County, Smith said, and there are variations in all of them.

“Some counties require any new feedlot to have a public hearing,” he explained. That is not the case in Nobles County if separation distances are met.

Smith said Nobles County has many public hearings for conditional uses because while someone may want to operate a home-based business or expand a feedlot, there may be a need for conditions on their permit.

“In Nobles County, we like to look at each and every parcel - each site individually,” he said.

Nesseth said as the state developed and tweaked its own set of rules for livestock feedlots based on research, many counties just adopted Minnesota’s 7020 rules as their own. Nobles County is one of the last counties in southwest Minnesota to update its ordinance to match the state.

Problems arise

Livestock producers in Minnesota are required to complete training as a certified animal waste technician before they can haul and spread manure. The requirement has led to MPCA- and University of Minnesota-led workshops and testing being offered throughout the state. Those programs teach consistent information direct from Minnesota’s 7020 rules.

The problem is, producers in Nobles County had different rules to follow.

“These people would take the course and start doing what they learned and meeting (state) setbacks), but then we’d get complaints from people saying they were too close to the road or to the waterway,” Smith said. “Our ordinance said you had to be 300 feet back for surface application during the winter. If someone wasn’t following the ordinance, it was very noticeable.”

So, Smith or Langseth would follow up on the phone call, making a site visit and talking with the producer who violated the county’s rules.

“Producers couldn’t understand why our rules were different than the state-required rules, and that our rules were based on arbitrary numbers,” said Smith.

The time had come for the county to reexamine its ordinance and change those once-arbitrary setback requirements to the research-based information used in the state’s feedlot rules.

“The reason for the change is not to lower our standards by any means - it’s to make it more consistent,” Langseth said.

“It’s consistent with the education people are receiving,” added Smith. “All of the producers get the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and MPCA handbook on applying manure in sensitive areas, and we want to be consistent with their rules.”

It was nearly a year ago when the county began to have a conversation with planning and zoning commission members and livestock producers about possible changes to the county’s feedlot ordinance.

“We had several meetings and invited people who were on the feedlot commission in 1995,” Smith said. “We visited with township and watershed people. We aren’t really lowering our standards, but rather making our standards consistent with our neighbors.”

“Our goal in this process is to make it even across the board for people who work in multiple counties,” added Langseth. “The guy that’s from Rock County and owns land in Nobles County can put (manure) on at the same rate as he does in Rock County. Their manure management people aren’t having to look at different rules for different counties.”

And that, said Nesseth, makes his job easier.

“If I know I can go to any county and use those same setbacks … (it’s) a lot easier,” he said.

Public comment sought

Smith said proposed changes to Nobles County’s feedlot ordinance, in many cases, align with the state’s 7020 feedlot rules. However, there is one category that will remain more restrictive in Nobles County - application of manure in the wellhead protection area.

All feedlots of more than 100 animal units applying manure within a wellhead protection area must do soil and manure sampling and provide that information to the county environmental office and public water suppliers, he noted.

“That’s because we have very shallow, very vulnerable wellhead protection areas in Nobles County - near Worthington, Adrian and Ellsworth, specifically,” explained Smith.

Plans are to have the county’s planning and zoning commission discuss changes to the feedlot ordinance at its Feb. 25 meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Nobles County Public Works facility, 960 Diagonal Road, Worthington, and the public is invited to attend and make comments on the changes.

A draft copy of the new ordinance can be viewed in advance on the Nobles County website, www.co.nobles.mn.us, under the Environmental Services tab. Paper copies are also available at the Nobles County Public Works facility. If the draft is approved on Feb. 25, it will then go before the Nobles County Board of Commissioners on March 3. With the board’s approval, the ordinance would take effect immediately.