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CAFOs become bigger players in state

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South Dakota is seeing a steady increase in livestock operations known as CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, where sometimes more than a million animals are bred, housed and fed in a confined space.

Supporters say the farms boost the state’s agricultural economy and strengthen rural communities. Opponents say they cause divisions among rural populations and limit opportunities for non-agricultural development in small towns.

The state, meanwhile, has seen a nearly 15% rise in the number of CAFOs over the past decade and 18 new CAFOs have been put into production over the past 18 months.

As of October 2019, there were 452 permitted CAFOs allowed to house about 9.6 million cows, hogs, turkeys and chickens in the state, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Supporters of the farms — including Gov. Kristi Noem — see strong opportunity for expansion of the livestock and related products market, which accounted for $4.5 billion in sales in 2017, about half of the state’s agricultural economy.

A hog-birthing facility recently approved for south of Miller in Hand County, for example, is expected to create 19 full-time jobs with an annual payroll of $1.3 million and produce another $1.3 million in annual feed purchases.

But each new operation brings environmental and odor concerns, and for some, emotional heartache and health problems.

Lyle Reimnitz, who lives a half-mile from a Davison County hog farm permitted for 8,000 sows, said the odors and gasses from the farm prevent him from living a normal life. He and his wife suffer from headaches and respiratory problems and they rarely sit outside.

“It doesn’t smell every day, but in the evenings, especially when the wind goes down and the humidity is high, we stay inside and keep our windows shut,” said Reimnitz. “The manure pits have gasses in them, and it gives me headaches, my eyes burn and I start coughing. My doctor said if I breathe it long enough, I will end up with respiratory problems.”

Reimnitz and others fear that state may follow the path of Iowa, the national leader in large hog farms where consistent odors, waterway pollution and fish kills have resulted from heavy CAFO development.

“I don’t want to see South Dakota become another Iowa,” he said. “We don’t need all our rivers and streams polluted. I know everybody wants cheap meat, but that comes at a terrible price for people who live here.”

Despite those concerns, the state this year started a new effort to provide a major financial incentive to county governments that approve CAFO projects.

Industry groups and state officials say CAFOs provide new opportunities for existing farmers, create options for young farmers to get started and add significant financial value to the state’s largest industry.

“I do think we need more ag development in South Dakota,” Gov. Noem said in September. “Anytime we can add value to the commodities and livestock that we raise here, it puts more money into South Dakota’s pocket and for those producers out there that are working so hard to feed the world.”

Noem said she will continue to support CAFOs as long as they are properly sited and operate within state guidelines.

“I actually live right down the road from a large dairy that has thousands of head of dairy cattle, and I’m a rancher too,” Noem said. “The smart thing is to make sure we’re putting these in the right locations, that we’re protecting our resources, and that we’re protecting our environment and putting them in areas where economic development can grow.”

CAFOs dominate markets

Most American livestock is now raised in CAFOs, with federal data showing that about 70% of cows, 98% of pigs and 99% of chickens and turkeys are produced in CAFOs.

Large CAFOs require a state permit and are subject to regular inspections once they reach 1,000 or more “animal units.” Based on weight, 1,000 equates to either 700 dairy cows, 1,000 head of cattle, 2,500 adult hogs or 10,000 juvenile swine, 55,000 turkeys, 82,000 laying hens or 155,000 chickens.

South Dakota, particularly in the east, is attractive for CAFO developers owing to access to inexpensive feed, solid infrastructure, available land and close proximity to major slaughterhouses and processing plants. The state is bordered by three states that are top-five in the nation for number of large CAFOs — Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

“Agriculture has been changing for 100 years, and just like the four-row planter became the 16-row planter and then the 20-row planter, the common theme is that there’s still a family that is out there doing it,” said Steve Dick, director of Ag United, a Sioux Falls organization that represents farmers in several agricultural sectors in South Dakota. “And I don’t know if hogs or cattle being in a confined space has changed. I think what has changed in the last 10, 15 or 20 years is the technology for the comfort of those animals.”

Farmers and industry officials say that in order to make a good living in the modern agriculture industry, getting larger and creating economies of scale is one way to find success.

“The days of having a few chickens, a few milk cows, a few cows, those days have changed a lot as [livestock] farmers have specialized in one species, just as a lot of farmers have specialized in corn or soybeans,” Dick said.

Opponents worry that aggressive development of CAFOs, particularly by out-of-state firms, will change the nature of farming and rural living in the state.

“Industrial CAFOs that store manure under their operations for 365 days before spreading are a separate agricultural business than compared to grazing animals that are not confined, not under a roof, but are under the sun and the air where they can naturally distribute the manure that makes it a positive, instead of a toxic overload,” said Candice Lockner, a Ree Heights rancher who fended off a proposed 50,000-head cattle CAFO in her neighborhood in 2014 and has since become a grassroots organizer against the farms.

According to data obtained through a public-records request by News Watch to the DENR, permitted CAFOs in South Dakota violated state regulations 217 times from October 2009 to August 2019 and $207,000 in fines were levied. Violations led to farm wastes making their way into state waterways nine times during that period, but little or no environmental damage resulted, DENR officials said.

More expansion expected

Development of new large livestock farms and expansion of existing farms can result in large payments to counties that approve them under a new tax-rebate program started by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in spring 2019.

South Dakota has seen a steady increase in the number of CAFO operations permitted by the state since state regulation began in 1997, from 15 to 338 in 2007 to 452 as of October 2019.

State data also show that the number of animals allowed at those operations has increased from 8.4 million animals at 400 permitted operations in January 2011 to 9.8 million animals at 443 permitted operations in January 2019.

The majority of the recent growth has occurred in the hog industry, which has seen a 21% increase in permitted operations from 2011 to 2019 and a 32% rise in the number of permitted animals during that time.

The largest CAFO operations in South Dakota include the National Foods egg hatchery east of Plankinton in Aurora County with 1.98 million chickens; the Schlitz Goose Farm in Sisseton with 193,000 geese; the PIC Apex Farm in Mound City in Campbell County, with 36,400 sows; and the Fall River Feed Yard southeast of Hot Springs in Fall River County with 25,000 head of beef cattle.

While the number of hog farms overall in South Dakota has fallen by 16% from 2012 to 2017, the number of large farms producing 5,000 or more hogs per year has jumped by almost 30% over that period.

In 2012, the state had 145 large hog farms that produced 3.6 million hogs valued at $390 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. In 2017, 188 large farms produced 5.2 million hogs valued at $545 million, the USDA said. Also, the USDA data show that 20 of the 85 largest hog farms in South Dakota are operated by contract farmers or integrators, indicating the growing push into the state by outside interests.

The concerns over involvement of non-local CAFO system providers are misplaced, said Nick Fitzgerald, business development manager with the Pipestone System, a Minnesota-based firm that works with landowners and investors to start up and operate hog facilities in seven Midwestern states.

Pipestone operates 74 hog birthing and weaning facilities, including more than 20 in South Dakota. The company provides new hog farmers with siting expertise, management training and full production systems to raise hogs.

“We want to be great neighbors, and we don’t want to be an environmental risk in any way, shape or form,” Fitzgerald said.

Pipestone will likely continue its expansion in South Dakota, which has inexpensive feed, including corn and ethanol byproducts, Fitzgerald said.

“In terms of setbacks and siting, South Dakota is more strict than other states,” Fitzgerald said. “But we would like to raise more pigs in South Dakota because we can raise them at a lower cost than in the state of Iowa, for example.”

The expansion of CAFOs in South Dakota may also be hastened by a need for room for expansion within the livestock industry in the Great Plains.

South Dakota is flanked by three states that are in the national top five for number of large CAFOs — Iowa at No. 1, Minnesota at No. 2 and Nebraska at No. 4.

David Osterberg, who has studied CAFOs in Iowa for three decades for the Iowa Policy Project, said South Dakota should expect to see even more CAFO projects proposed as those neighboring states reach a saturation point for CAFOs, with dwindling land where CAFO wastes can legally be spread.

“It makes sense they are moving into South Dakota, because we’re running out of room to put the manure over here,” said Osterberg. “Especially in the northwest of Iowa toward you guys, there are so many CAFOs that finding a place to get rid of the manure is getting difficult.”

Regulation of large animal-feeding operations in South Dakota is based on the federal Clean Water Act, which became law in 1972, and subsequent livestock laws that were developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1974.

Once a farm reaches CAFO status, it must obtain a state permit that provides for regulation of waste management and water use, said Kent Woodmansey, who oversees the CAFO inspection program within the state DENR. CAFO operators must attend a producer training class to become educated on state regulations and monitoring requirements, he said.

New CAFOs are inspected within the first 18 months of operation and then every one to three years after, depending on size, Woodmansey said. Inspections are announced in advance so operators can prepare and in some cases arrange to have their outside waste management consultant present, Woodmansey said. “Otherwise we drive out there and they’re not there,” he said.

CAFO operators are held to strict standards on proper storage of wastes, with a close eye on their not overreaching the capacity of waste-holding ponds or lagoons that are typically lined with clay or concrete.

State regulators will also make contact with an operator or inspect the operator’s property if they receive a formal, signed complaint from the public. Most complaints relate to concerns over potential contamination of water sources and the spreading of wastes, he said.

The state also receives complaints about odors, but has no authority to monitor or take action against strong odors because no state or federal law regulates smells released by agricultural operations, including CAFOs.

“We won’t respond to an odor complaint because we don’t have any criteria for that,” Woodmansey said. “If somebody sent something in about odors or called about that, we would respond that we have no authority over that.”

South Dakota CAFOs also must gain approval, typically in the form of a conditional-use permit, from county commissions or planning and zoning boards before being built.

Counties can have a range of local rules and guidelines, the most important being the “setback” limits on how close a CAFO can be to residences, municipalities and water sources. The limits can vary from county to county, and undergo fairly frequent updates.

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