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Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

Given the enormous potential for manure to impair water quality, should large animal confinements be allowed to operate?

Concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs are "farms" that house a large number of animals in a small area. CAFOs are raising both ethical and environmental questions. The hog industry in Iowa, which has a $12 billion dollar economic impact, provides a good case study. In 1988 there were 41,000 Iowa farmers raising hogs. By 1997, that number dropped to just 18,000 while the number of hogs being raised stayed relatively constant. Small farms were replaced by huge operations raising thousands of hogs. More hogs per farm equals an increase in the concentration of hogs.

CAFO Concerns

The most serious concerns center on manure management and its affect on water quality. Hog lots create an enormous amount of waste. A single hog generates approximately ten pounds of waste every day, 365 days a year. Multiply that by a couple thousand hogs and it adds up to a whole lot of manure. That manure is often stored in lagoons or ponds until there is room for no more.

What happens next? Manure is rich in the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which means it makes good fertilizer. But if manure fertilizer is improperly applied, it can result in runoff, moving the manure into waterways. Manure-laden runoff contributes nitrogen to the water, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events. Scientist believe that this runoff greatly contributes to the Dead Zone, a place in the Gulf of Mexico where no fish or plants can live because there is too little oxygen for survival. Dead zone feature

In Their Defense….

Owners and operators of large hog confinements defend their practices, pointing to the system of rules and regulations that govern manure management. There are regulations about the depth of lagoons and how close they can be situated to waterways and water sources. Most states also require manure management plans, detailing when, where, and how manure will be applied to cropland. These management plans are meant to avoid over-application that results in runoff.

Critics acknowledge that the majority of pork producers comply with the rules, and try to be good stewards of the land but say that many farms operate just under the EPA’s size limit in order to avoid having to get a discharge permit. They also charge that the system of regulations is too weak and isn’t enforced strictly enough. What do you think? Does this industry need to be regulated differently? Should manure be managed differently? What changes would you make? Is the money they generate worth the risk that they pose?



Explore More: Water Quality
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