Farm Horizons, August 2009

Feedlots: balancing farmers, homeowners, and the environment

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

The subject of feedlots can be confusing and, in some cases, controversial, but, according to the people who regulate the process in Carver County, there are resources available to help people navigate through the process, which can include registration, permits, and a variety of regulations related to setbacks and the number of animal units that are allowed.

The rules vary from county to county, and officials advise farmers to seek advice from their own county feedlot office.

One Carver County resident has been dealing with feedlot issues for several years. His case may not be typical, but it involves many of the same issues that other feedlot operators and their neighbors face.

Jim Kieser runs a 160-acre farm in Hollywood Township that is owned by his parents, who retired in the mid-1990s. Kieser said at one time, the number of cows on the farm ranged from 80 to 100.

Kieser continued to run the farm after his parents retired and moved to an assisted living facility.

In 2002, Kieser was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He underwent two spinal surgeries, and was unable to work.

He said he sold most of his cows after the accident, because he was unable to take care of them, but he always kept eight or nine cows, and friends helped him while he was unable to work.

According to Kieser, a new challenge emerged in 2004, when his neighbor, Harlan Dobratz, sold off a 10-acre portion of his farm as a building site. Dobratz is a former Hollywood Township supervisor, Carver County planning commission member, Carver County commissioner, and current soil and water conservation district board member.

Mayer resident Korinne Kramer purchased the property, which was adjacent to Kieser’s feedlot. Kramer said she does not recall any discussion about feedlots or setbacks from feedlots when she bought the property. She said the township told her that she could build a house anywhere on the 10-acre parcel (she has not built a house, and has since put the property up for sale).

At about that same time, Kieser’s health was beginning to improve. He wanted to expand his herd so he could once again make a living on the farm. In order to do this, he said he needs a maximum of about 60 cows, which is fewer animals than were there when his father was running the farm.

Kieser said that was when his trouble began. He said he received conflicting information from the county.

He said he was told that his was not an existing farm. He was confused by this, because it had been a farm as far back as he could remember, and he is 48 years old. He said Dobratz had worked for his father for many years, filling silo, and two current Hollywood Township supervisors, Ron Kassulker and Kent Kassulker, had milked cows on the farm in the past. Kieser said it was no secret that this had been a working farm.

Mike Lein, manager of the land and water division of Carver County’s office of environmental services, which oversees the county feedlot program, said this illustrates one reason why the county wants operators to register their feedlots.

“Because he wasn’t registered, he didn’t get the protection of prohibiting that lot split,” Lein said.

He explained that the regulations are designed to protect both farmers and home owners.

Lein said people can’t build a new house within 1,000 feet of a feedlot. On the other hand, farmers can’t put a new feedlot within 1,000 feet of an existing house.

The county uses a figure of 30 or more animals to define a “working” feedlot (as opposed to a hobby farm). This is more restrictive than the state law, which uses 50 animal units.

Lein said the initial registration process for feedlots began between 2000 and 2002. “We’ve been to every known feedlot in the county,” Lein said. “We’ve done mailings and run ads, and we’ve been telling people to register their feedlots.”

In spite of this, Lein said some operators have chosen, for whatever reason, not to register.

Kieser said he dealt with multiple people at the county, including Scott Weinzierl and Rachel Matthews. He said every time the county staff changed, he had to start the process all over, explaining his situation to the new staff members and providing information about his operation. He said this went on for several years.

Lein disputed these allegations.

“We’ve been very clear with Mr. Kieser,” Lein said. He added that he and his staff have explained the issues and the options to Kieser.

“This is nothing new for us,” Lein commented. “We always try to keep the farmer in business.”

Another challenge that Kieser faces is that his feedlot is located in two shoreland districts, as defined by the Department of Natural Resources. There is the creek that runs through the ditch along Carver County Road 33 on the east side of Kieser’s property, and a larger wetland area that is located on the west side of his property.

Lein said no new or expanded feedlots are allowed within the shoreland areas, which are generally within 1,000 feet of a lake, or 300 feet of a stream.

Some townships are even more restrictive, Lein said, and township regulations are also enforced by his office.

Because feedlots in a shoreland area cannot be expanded, Kieser is limited to the maximum number of animals that have been on the farm in the past five years. He said this is unfair, because he was restricted in the number of animals he could have during that period. He said it seems like the county is trying to prevent him from earning a living.

Lein said that, based on his observations from driving by the farm, it has been many years since there has been a major feedlot operation on the property. Nonetheless, he said in cases like this, if a farmer can provide records such as purchases and sales of animals to document the number of animals that have been on a farm, this can be taken into account.

“When we find an issue, we bring in the Carver Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to come up with a fix,” Lein said. He added that the SWCD has access to resources, including cost-sharing programs, that can help farmers implement changes to allow them to operate within the regulations.

Greg Graczyk, program coordinator with the SWCD, recommended changes that Kieser could make that would help to increase the number of cows allowed on his land. These changes included moving his cows further back from the ditch that runs along Carver County Road 33, and planting grass in this area to increase the buffer between the feedlot and the ditch.

He also recommended that Kieser add more fencing to the west of his existing feedlot to move the cows further in that direction, which Kieser has done.

Graczyk also told Kieser that by moving his cows off of the feedlot and onto pasture land for part of the year would help the situation.

Graczyk explained that the SWCD provides technical assistance to the county on matters such as the Wetland Conservation Act and feedlots. It also helps with feedlot evaluations.

When evaluating a feedlot, Graczyk compiles information including the lot size, the number and size of the animals, how long they are on the lot (part of the year or all year), the distance to receiving water, size of the buffers, and the amount of clean water that runs over the lot, such as from a barn roof.

Graczyk inputs the data into a computer model called MinnFARM (Minnesota Feedlot Annualized Runoff Model). This helps him identify options for farmers.

“We put our heads together and try to come up with solutions. We try to help them get what they want, and stay within the regulations,” Graczyk commented.

He explained that in Kieser’s case, he previously was just under the 10-animal limit. When he started to talk about expanding beyond that, this was when the county became involved.

A feedlot permit is required:

• when a new feedlot is to be constructed.

• when a feedlot is expanded or modified.

• when an existing feedlot is restocked after being abandoned for more than five years.

• when there is a change in ownership (including from father to son).

• when a complaint is filed and an inspection reveals that the site is creating a potential pollution hazard.

In addition to different rules between counties, some rules change within a county.

For example, in the western portion Carver County, a conditional use permit is required for feedlots of 600 or more animal units. However, in the eastern portion of the county, where the population density is higher and residential development is beginning to replace farmland, a conditional use permit is required for feedlots of 300 animal units, making the east side of the county twice as restrictive as the west side.

On May 20, Lori Brinkman, assistant feedlot administrator for Carver County, and Graczyk inspected Kieser’s operation and gathered information about current animal units, his future plans, and the number of animals he would like to have.

In June, Graczyk inspected Kieser’s operation again.

In a June 30 letter to Kieser, Brinkman said the May 20 inspection was conducted for three purposes. First, because Carver County environmental services received a complaint about how the feedlot was being managed. Second, to gain an understanding of the current management of the feedlot, and third, to discuss Kieser’s future management plans to determine the feasibility of these plans.

Brinkman said her goal was “to assist you to develop a feedlot plan that will align your plans with feedlot regulation requirements.”

Brinkman also wrote, “Many of the requirements to eliminate the open lot pollution hazard are currently in the process of being implemented by you, which is a great benefit and is greatly appreciated.”

Among the findings that Brinkman noted in her letter were the following:

Future expansion must occur to the west.

Buffers below the feedlot must be expanded to filter runoff (Kieser has already moved his fences back and planted grass).

The final requirement is for Kieser to bring his feedlot into compliance with Minnesota Feedlot Rule 7020 and the Carver County feedlot ordinance, including registration of his feedlot.

Brinkman stated in her letter that the “feedlot must be registered based on the maximum number of animals that have been maintained on the site at any one time in the past five years.”

Kieser said does not want to sign the registration form, because he believes this will prevent him from expanding his operation.

He also said he believes there is conflicting information, because Graczyk told him he could have the animals he wants if he completes all the changes to his operation that the SWCD has recommended, but the office of environmental services is still limiting the number of animals he can have to the number he has had in the past five years.

“I’m not trying to buck the system. I’m just trying to make a living here,” Kieser said.

He added that working on the farm is “his only chance” because he can adjust the work to his health conditions. He said that as a result of his injuries from the accident, he is not able to work a “regular” job.

Regardless of what has happened up to this point, it appears that Kieser will have to work with the county to come up with a plan that will allow him to complete the expansion that he wants within the existing regulations, and despite the challenges with the property being in two shoreland districts, the county has not yet ruled out this possibility.

Lein said Kieser still has some options.

“He must come in with a specific plan,” Lein said. This plan will have to show how Kieser will limit the pollution issues from his feedlot.

Lein said his department strives to find balance between the needs of farmers and homeowners. It must also preserve air and water quality while working within state guidelines.

The final advice Lein had for farmers was to encourage them to call or stop by his office when they are thinking about new feedlots or modifying existing ones.

“There are people here who can help,” Lein said. “Don’t assume that you will get a permit,” he advised. He said any plans should be reviewed by his office prior to any work being done.

Lein said he sometimes receives calls from Realtors who are looking at a piece of property and want to know what setback requirements are involved. He appreciates when they call, because this can eliminate problems later on in the process.

In summary:

All feedlots with 10 or more animal units should be registered.

A feedlot with 30 or more animal units is considered a “working” feedlot, and which provides the benefit of prohibiting new homes within 1,000 feet (but also prevents new feedlots of 30 or more animal units from being built within 1,000 feet of an existing home.

Any feedlot with 600 or more animal units (300 on the east side of Carver County) also requires a conditional use permit (Laketown Township and Watertown Township are even more restrictive).

Any feedlot of any size located in a shoreland area also requires a conditional use permit. Existing feedlots in shoreland areas that have been in place since before the requirement was implemented will require a conditional use permit if they are expanded or modified in any way.

Any questions regarding feedlots or required setbacks should be directed to the feedlot office in the county where a property is located.

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