GOODHUE, Minn. — Dave Buck spent the better part of his morning on Wednesday, Sept. 8, sorting cows.

Pregnant ones went one way, ones that had recently given birth went another. Then there was the one that gave birth just a few minutes before.

Looking at the cows in his heifer barn, he explained that what he thought might take two hours was, well, going to keep him busy until the cows came home.

"You end up doing it cow by cow," he said.

But his dairy farm is growing. It has to grow. Buck and his wife, Ann, have two sons who have returned to the farm just west of the city of Goodhue, right in the middle of Goodhue County, and in order to supply an income for everyone, the family farm needed to grow.

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So, in 2019, with an eye toward the next generation of Bucks running the farm, he began the process of applying for a permit through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to expand his dairy herd from less than 1,000 animal units – 714 cows or fewer – to roughly 1,700 animal units, or roughly a little more than 1,200 cows.

While the dairy is still adding cows to get to its optimal level, Buck said the goal right now is to eventually milk 950 cows and keep another 150 dry cows, or about 1,540 animal units.

Fewer big feedlots

In 2020, only one feedlot was issued a permit for more than 1,000 animal units in the MPCA's 11-county southeast Minnesota district. So far in 2021, only two such feedlots have been permitted in Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha and Winona counties. Statewide, those numbers were 15 feedlots in 2020, and nine thus far in 2021. That's down from 23 feedlots in both 2017 and 2019, and 35 feedlots in 2018.

Cathy Malakowsky, a MPCA spokeswoman, said the numbers do not include sites that were permitted previously and applying for continued coverage, modifications to existing coverage or any other change to coverage. Rather, the numbers represent sites that exceed 1,000 animal units and that were new for general permit or individual permit coverage.

Still, said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director with the Minnesota Milk Producers, the numbers for large feedlots are down, and the reasons have as much to do with the hassle of building a feedlot for more than 1,000 AU than it does for the economics or agricultural reasons. After all, an environmental assessment worksheet might cost a farmer $60,000, and if a more stringent environmental impact statement is required, a farmer is looking at about $1 million.

A dairy cow enjoys the morning Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, at Dave and Ann Buck's dairy farm near Goodhue. Brian Todd / Post Bulletin
A dairy cow enjoys the morning Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, at Dave and Ann Buck's dairy farm near Goodhue. Brian Todd / Post Bulletin

"I think there’s two things going on," Sjostrom said. "When you make arbitrary limits like this, a lot of people are building below these limits rather than dealing with the mental firestorm that comes with that limit."

Applying for a CAFO permit comes with a public environmental worksheet process, and farmers often find themselves thrust into a public relations mess for simply wanting to expand their business.

"The other thing, certain counties have caps," Sjostrom said, pointing to Winona County's 1,500 AU cap, or caps in various townships, "where it wouldn’t make any economic sense to expand your farm."

Ratios: A better way

Sjostrom said rather than caps or animal unit limits that trigger environmental review processes, the state should look at the ratio of land to animals. If there's enough land for a certain amount of manure to be used as fertilizer, a farm should be able to expand accordingly.

"If you’re a successful dairy farmer, you run into this wall at about 714 cows (1,000 AUs)," Sjostrom said. "No one builds for 715 cows, because they need to optimize for the headaches for this limit."

He argues that there's no scientific reason behind a limit of 1,000 AU other than "it has three zeros and people picked that number." If the state went to a system of simply saying how many cows or pigs do you want, how many acres can you fertilize, and then finding a ratio that is sustainable, no one would need to work around these arbitrary numbers.

Sjostrom believes that under the state's current rules, the MPCA is basically fair to farmers.

Buck agreed. Maybe 15 years ago, he said, the MPCA had a different attitude, and was more concerned with enforcement to the detriment of working with farmers. But about 15 years ago – he pointed to the work of long-time MPCA Commissioner John Linc-Stine – the agency began working with farmers to find solutions.

"The PCA needs level-headed people at the top to make and enforce rules evenly," Buck said. "I'm not opposed to regulations, but they have to be regulations that make common sense."

Still, the MPCA is not the reason for fewer CAFO applications, he said.

First, he said, there are fewer dairy farms these days, and that means fewer farmers to who want to grow their farms. Particularly, he said, he sees fewer farms in the mid-size range where their next step would be to go from say, 600 AU to 1,200 or 1,300 AU.

Second, the dairy economy – in fact, all feedlot sectors – have suffered economically over the past couple of years, meaning farmers don't have the financial capital to grow.

"We wouldn't have done this if (two sons) didn't want to stay in the dairy industry," Buck said.