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Why Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature are determined to kill the state’s latest feedlot regulations

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the latest rules are meant to address threats to drinking water and wildlife across much of the state. But the GOP, and a broad lineup of agriculture trade groups, have criticized the rules as inflexible. 

A tractor pulling a manure spreader is seen on an organic dairy farm in Belle Plaine.
A tractor pulling a manure spreader is seen on an organic dairy farm in Belle Plaine.

Republicans who control the state Senate threatened last week to slash Minnesota’s budget for environmental programs if Gov. Tim Walz doesn’t drop, or at least pause, his plan to adopt new auto emission standards.

But the electric vehicle rules aren’t the only new pollution standard the GOP is trying to repeal at the Legislature this year. Senate Republicans also want to stop regulations that aim to curb water contamination from manure fertilizer at the state’s largest animal feedlots.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the rules, which went into effect in February, are based on up-to-date science and are meant to help prevent some of the agricultural pollution that poses a threat to drinking water and wildlife across much of the state. But the GOP, and a broad lineup of agriculture trade groups, have criticized the rules as inflexible in a way that hamstrings farmers and may not always help water quality.

What the regulations do

The regulations in question are part of the MPCA’s Feedlot General Permit, which applies to about 1,200 businesses: a mix of dairy farms and ag operations that raise cattle, poultry and hogs.

Only the largest feedlots have to get the permit, which is required by federal clean water laws but developed and administered by the state. A dairy farm, for instance, would need to have 715 cows to fall under the permit regulations, said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.

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Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner at the MPCA, said those 1,200 mega-farms are responsible for about one-third of the manure produced in Minnesota. That manure is frequently used as fertilizer to grow food for the animals, a practice that has benefits over using other fertilizer.

But manure still carries a risk of seeping into groundwater or getting washed into waterways. That pollution can make drinking water dangerous and harm wildlife and their habitat. The feedlot permit aims to limit pollution by restricting farming practices.

Katrina Kessler
Katrina Kessler
Kessler said the federal government makes the MPCA revise the feedlot permit every five years based on the most recent scientific research. The update this year was based on data from the University of Minnesota extension and the research collective Discovery Farms.

One of the most controversial new rules in the permit bans feedlots from applying solid manure to frozen ground in March and limits it during February. The MPCA determined March was a particularly high-risk month for manure runoff because the fertilizer can get carried into waterways when snow melts or during early-spring rains when the ground is frozen. 

Kessler said farmers might put manure on the fields over frozen ground simply to store it cheaply, though she said the fertilizer can carry some benefits for crops if it doesn’t runoff.

The previous permit requires farmers to plant cover crops in June, July and August when a farmer applies manure to soil after harvesting their primary crop. Cover crops, such as rye, clover and alfalfa, can be planted before or after a more traditional crop like corn and soybeans. The practice prevents nutrients in fertilizer from leaching into bare soil and polluting groundwater.

The revised permit now extends those requirements for cover crops to September. During the first half of October, farmers who apply manure now have to implement one of four nitrogen management practices, including planting cover crops or ensuring soil temperature is below 50 degrees.

Why many ag groups and the GOP are opposed

The new regulations, developed over 18 months, have drawn a litany of complaints from a wide range of ag groups who say the rules aren’t flexible enough. Sjostrom, from the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, disputed data used by the state and said the MPCA is wrong to emphasize calendar dates over natural conditions in limiting when farmers can spread manure.

It’s not that farmers want to put manure on frozen ground, he said. But in late March, for instance, the ground may not actually be frozen, and timing may be ideal for spreading manure. Similarly, he said frozen soil in the fall can make it impossible to plant cover crops, and he said other barriers can restrict a farmer even if they support cover crops in theory. “We may run out of cover crop seeds,” Sjostrom said. “Other farmers who have figured out how to make cover crops work for themselves could be screwed because we force a lot of these farms under this permit  … to use cover crops even if they don’t want to. It might be wasted because they’re throwing it on frozen snowy ground because that’s what the law says.”

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In a February letter, Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, called the changes to the feedlot permit “unreasonable,” and said the organization specifically opposes the ban on spreading solid manure during winter months. 

Kevin Paap
Kevin Paap
“From northern to southern Minnesota, spring can arrive nearly a full month earlier for those in the southern portion of the state,” Paap said. “To tie regulations to specific calendar dates will limit farmer’s flexibility to manage manure specific to the circumstances on their farm.”

Senate Republicans have advanced a measure that would bar the MPCA from prohibiting solid manure on fields during February and March. It would also ban the agency from requiring cover crops in September and making farmers implement nitrogen management practices to prevent pollution in early October.

Lawmakers are currently negotiating a two-year budget and hashing out other policy differences before the legislative session is scheduled to end Monday. While the GOP has a majority in the Senate, Democrats hold a majority in the House. The latest offer made by Republicans on environmental issues includes repealing the manure and cover crop regulations.

State Sen. Bill Weber
State Sen. Bill Weber
Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican from Luverne, first introduced the legislation. In a conference committee hearing Wednesday on the state’s agricultural budget, Weber, like Paap from the Farm Bureau, called the new permit regulations “unreasonable.”

“I really didn’t believe that they were mindful of what is all involved in terms of the operations of a, particularly, cattle feeding or dairy operation,” Weber said of the MPCA.

MPCA defends the new rules

In an interview Friday, Kessler said the feedlot permit is more flexible than farming organizations have made it out to be. She said, for instance, if the ground is no longer frozen or covered with snow in March, their prohibition on spreading manure doesn’t actually apply. They also had initially banned manure application in February, but rolled that back after feedback from farmers. March, the MPCA decided, is the “most problematic” month for runoff, Kessler said. 

As for cover crops, Kessler said farmers won’t be penalized if they can’t successfully grow cover crops, they just have to “do your level best to get it going.” 

“It may be that some weather event or soil condition prohibits (cover crops) from growing, but if you tried your hardest that’s enough,” Kessler said.

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One argument for keeping the new regulations, Kessler said, is if the MPCA doesn’t update its permit based on the newest science, it risks having state authority over the rules pulled or limited by the federal government. The feds may be more difficult for farmers, she said.

Kessler said environmental groups have also pushed for tougher regulations and supported their efforts. In a February letter to lawmakers, John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said misapplication of manure has caused the “periodic devastation of fisheries and aquatic ecosystems” in the state. Runoff of nutrients into streams from snowmelt and early spring rain causes “rapid depletion of oxygen and kills fish and the aquatic food chain,” Lenzcewski said.

Lucas Sjostrom
Lucas Sjostrom
He noted farmers can also ask for more tailored, specific permits if they want, though Sjostrom, from the Milk Producers Association, said that process can be complex and take up lots of time so most opt for the general permit. 

Sjostrom said even if the permit has some flexibility in theory, feedlot operators at risk protracted fights over soil conditions if people who dislike feedlots (or the smell of manure) start reporting them for applying the fertilizer during March. He also said local governments could view the MPCA rules as best practices for smaller operations, and start applying the rules more broadly.

The permit regulations are likely to be a contentious issue as lawmakers debate final budget and policy agreements. There is at least some opposition among House Democrats. 

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State Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said during the Wednesday conference committee hearing that water quality and preventing nitrogen contamination is a key concern in his district. Limiting MPCA authority “feels like we’re going backwards instead of in the right direction.”

Not all Democrats support the MPCA regulations, however. Two DFL Senators — Kent Eken of Audubon and Nick Frentz of North Mankato — voted to advance Weber’s bill out of a committee in February.