Farmer friendly county poised to double size of cattle feedlots

It’s a refreshing show of support for agriculture and family farmers. The planning commission in Fillmore County recently voted overwhelmingly to recommend the county board double the limit on the number of cattle permitted on feedlots from 2,000 to 4,000, according to the Post Bulletin.

Yet when a public meeting on increasing the size of cattle feedlots draws a standing-room-only crowd — even in a rural southeastern Minnesota county — it’s clear that farmers and their way of life face increasing challenges.

The proposed amendment to the animal unit cap — which puts a ceiling on the amount of livestock, by weight, that are permitted on a farm or feedlot — drew a crowd of county residents for and against the change. More than 100 people attended the hearing, with about half of the audience watching the proceedings from an overflow room. Thirty people spoke during the public comment period, voicing their support or concerns.

The size of feedlots has become a favorite target for some environmental groups who question the impact on groundwater quality.

Katie Drewitz spoke in favor of the increase as a representative of the Fillmore County Farm Bureau.

“Farms and ranches of all sizes conduct business in the local community and generate a large amount of economic activity,” Drewitz said.

But many people, such as Harvey Benson, opposed the change. A common concern: nitrate pollution in wells and waterways stemming from manure.

“There is a recreation factor as well,” said Benson, a 92-year-old resident of Harmony Township. “Many tourists come here to enjoy the fishing and water sports on the rivers. Will they keep coming if we further contaminate our waters?”

The county’s restriction on the size of herds hadn’t been updated since before the turn of the century, despite vast changes in farming operations in the meantime and improved environmental standards.

Chris Miller, a Canton Township farmer, was the first speaker during public comment. He questioned whether the county should have an animal unit cap.

“The current 2,000 animal unit feedlot ordinance was implemented in 1997, and it has not been revised in 26 years,” said Chris Miller, a Canton Township farmer. “The proposed change from 2,000 to 4,000 animal units in no way changes or negates the environmental review farms would have to do in order to expand or permit over 1,000 animal units regulated by the MPCA.”

Opponents have held up the planned expansion of the 160-year old Daley dairy farm in nearby Winona County for more than four years. The owners recently filed a lawsuit against members of the Land Stewardship Project and three Winona County Board commissioners.

Ben Daley, an owner/operator of Lewiston-based Daley Farm, spoke about his family’s attempts to get a waiver of Winona County’s 1,500 animal unit cap and expand their dairy operation.

“You have the opportunity to help out family farms,” Daley said. “People who are against some of these types of farms have family members that are trying to raise kids on that farm, and every one of them cares deeply about the water, cares deeply about the community that they’re in, and it shows in the way that we run our farm.”

The planning commission’s decision to recommend expanding the feedlot size in Fillmore County carries significant weight. But the final decision will come at the county board’s meeting in March.