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UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hosted a series of the CAFO update meetings around the state in January and February to update farmers on permit requirements and share tips for managing nutrients.

EAU CLAIRE — Chris Clayton has only recently started working with concentrated animal feeding operations for the state Department of Natural Resources, but already he can understand some of the concerns farmers have with the program.

Clayton, the DNR’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits program manager, said he has heard from farmers and other agriculture industry representatives that recent turnover within the DNR’s CAFO program has hindered communication between the DNR and farmers.

“I came onto the program two months ago, and half the positions underneath me are vacant,” Clayton said Feb. 12 during a CAFO update meeting. “I’m going to need to fill those programs in the coming months. But until that time, a lot of that work gets put onto other people.”

The DNR held focus group discussions in 2019 with the Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin in an effort to address what is working well with the CAFO program, what isn’t working well and what the DNR priorities should be with the program in the next three to five years.

The primary concern to come from those focus groups was that DNR staff turnover has led to issues with staff understanding some aspects of operations on the farms they are working with. Ag group responses also included a desire for DNR communications and enforcement need to be more consistent, Clayton said.

From those discussions, the DNR came up with goals of making sure they clearly define and communicate roles and responsibilities involved with the CAFO program; ensure regulatory consistency; make sure DNR staff has the tools and resources to run the program; and proactively building and maintaining relationships.

Clayton said the DNR has recently added or is hoping to soon add to the CAFO program several employees, including an engineering supervisor, an engineer, a hydrogeologist, regional specialists, a permit coordinator and an intake specialist.

UW-Extension and the state Department of Natural Resources hosted a series of the CAFO update meetings in January and February to update farmers on permit requirements and share tips for managing nutrients.

Clayton said the majority of farms the DNR is permitting are in the range of 1,500 animal units, but the number of larger farms is growing and the DNR has permitted 13 farms in the state with more than 10,000 animal units.

The state’s first CAFO permit was issued in 1985. As of the end of 2019, the DNR has issued 313 Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. About 1.15 million acres are covered by nutrient management plans.

“There have been a lot of issuance of permits and a lot of growth in farms in the state of Wisconsin in the last 35 years,” Clayton said.

CAFOs are required to have a DNR-approved WPDES permit in place when they to operate. CAFO WPDES permits ensure farms use proper planning, nutrient management, and structure/system construction to protect Wisconsin waters, according to the DNR.

The permit requires a field-specific, phosphorus-based nutrient management plan that outlines the amounts, timing, locations, methods and other aspects related to land application of manure and process wastewater in order to prevent or minimize manure or other wastewater runoff from fields to surface waters or groundwater and ensures applied nutrients meet crop needs.

Clayton said changes to the state’s runoff-management rules that affect farmers on karst landscapes in eastern Wisconsin were originally being considered for a larger portion of the state. The karst in Wisconsin extends in a horseshoe shape from St. Croix County along the Mississippi River, through the southern part of the state, and northeast along Lake Michigan up to Marinette County.

Karst landscapes may have deep bedrock fractures, allowing water to move through openings, carrying sediment and pollutants into the groundwater.

“There are areas in Wisconsin that have aquifers that are more susceptible to contamination,” said Dave Hart, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. “Some things that make groundwater more vulnerable to contamination are shallow bedrock, shallow water tables, course soils and that bedrock type. Dolomite is more susceptible to contamination than a sandy soil.”

The decision eventually was made to include only counties where the depth to the Silurian dolomite bedrock was 20 feet or less, Clayton said. Nearly 284,000 cropland acres are within that sensitive area, and 18% of that is managed by CAFOs, he said.

Nutrient management requirements in the area apply to both CAFO and small-farm operators in counties that have adopted the standards and include restrictions on timing of applications and vary based on whether the farmer is working with liquid or solid manures and on depth to bedrock.

Clayton said it is taking a collaborative effort between multiple organizations, including county land conservation departments, the DNR, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to get the restrictions implemented for smaller farms.

“The department has conducted a lot of outreach on this with a lot of different stakeholders to discuss implementation options,” he said. “We are thinking about ways to get the word out and talk to the farm community about options like composting, cover crops, water-use efficiency, rotational grazing and so on to meet these requirements.”

For more information about the DNR’s CAFO program, visit https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/agbusiness/CAFO.