A mountain of manure in feedlots
There are more feedlots now, meaning there’s a lot of manure. Is the environment being affected?
Allan Sents needs a front-end loader and a dump truck to attack the mountain of manure he faces every day.
Sents and his wife, Deanna, own McPherson County Feeders, which nourishes more than 11,000 head of cattle in Marquette, Kan., before they mosey off to the slaughterhouse.
And like the hundreds of other feedlots scattered throughout the state, all those hungry cows produce a seemingly unending stream of urine and poop that poses a risk for contaminating water.
“I honestly worry from time to time that we are doing something that might have an environmental impact that maybe we’re not aware of,” said Sents, whose family has operated this feedlot for about 30 years.
With more than 2.3 million cattle in Kansas feedlots dropping millions of pounds of waste — which can contain antibiotics residue — the environmental challenge is immense. And an increase in bigger, specialized feedlots over the last two decades doesn’t make it easier.
Now environmental critics worry that a federal program that distributes billions of dollars in assistance to livestock producers nationwide to help them put waste controls in place may be fueling a trend of even bigger — and riskier — feedlots. `
Documents obtained by Harvest Public Media and The Kansas City Star through a Kansas Open Records Act request show the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has levied penalties for monitoring and environmental infractions on 38 feedlots over the last decade.
Though that involved a relatively small proportion of the feedlots operating in Kansas, the records reveal what an environmental catastrophe could look like — damaging agricultural land, killing fish and aquatic life, and contaminating drinking water.
Among the incidents in Kansas:
• A feedlot operator in 2011 discharged 3.7 million gallons of wastewater out of his man-made lagoon and into a public creek.
• A feedlot operator in 2009 pumped excess waste into freshwater streams and ponds, resulting in E. coli concentrations more than 24 times higher than normally found in Kansas water.
• A feedlot operator in 2004 applied manure to surrounding fields improperly, resulting in the contamination of potable water wells in a sensitive groundwater area.
• A feedlot operator in 2003 allowed runoff from the application of manure that resulted in ammonia levels more than 550 times the typical amount just two miles upstream of a creek whose waters are used for drinking water.
The potential for such environment problems is only growing.
Since 2001, the number of permitted beef feedlots in Kansas has jumped more than 57 percent to 844, according to state records. What’s more, 18 Kansas feedlots are permitted to accommodate more than 50,000 cattle; two can handle more than 130,000 cattle — a level almost unheard of two decades ago, industry observers said.The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the cattle industry is continuing to shift toward larger feedlots. Feedlots with 32,000 head or more now market about 40 percent of fed cattle.
But Clayton Huseman, executive director of the feedlot division of the Kansas Livestock Association, maintains that the risks of contamination have little to do with the size of a feedlot.
“You have the same responsibility to control and to manage all of that waste,” Huseman said.
Still, some industry critics argue that scaling up just means any system breakdown would lead to a bigger mess. They point to a government initiative launched in 1996 partly intended to help feedlots control waste.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides billions in taxpayer dollars each year to help agriculture producers upgrade conservation practices. In most cases, it pays up to 75 percent of the projected costs (up to $300,000) for developing plans for the disposal of waste and building waste storage facilities.
Funding for the quality incentives program has ballooned from $130 million when the program started to almost $1.8 billion this year. Sixty percent of total annual spending nationwide for the program is allocated to livestock practices.
The EPA requires that feedlots of 1,000 or more head of cattle contain 100 percent of the waste they produce, trucking out manure that collects in cattle pens and controlling water runoff in a series of lagoons and retention structures.
Sents, who has never applied for funding through the incentives program, employs eight to 10 people on his feedlot and often devotes one or two of them just to manure management to make sure all the runoff is contained.
“This is where we live and we’ve raised our family here and we value the relationships that we have with our neighbors,” Sents said. “We recognize that we’re just stewards — that while we may have possession and control of this land for the time that we’re here, that we want to leave it in a (good) condition for the generations to come as well.”