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New rules for Minnesota’s large animal feedlots to be relaxed under compromise legislation

Included in a bill negotiated between the DFL-led House and the GOP-majority Senate, the change has the potential to draw blowback from the federal government. 

Cattle
A compromise bill on environmental policy relaxes a tougher permit for large animal feedlots.
REUTERS/Ross Courtney

Minnesota Senate Republicans may have backed away from their push to stop or pause Gov. Tim Walz’s new auto emission standards known as the Clean Cars rules, but GOP lawmakers will likely get to partially roll back another set of new regulations this year.

A compromise bill on environmental policy negotiated between the DFL-led House and the GOP-majority Senate relaxes a tougher permit for large animal feedlots. State regulators at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had imposed the restrictions in February in an effort to cut water contamination from manure, but many farming and livestock organizations said the permit was inflexible and wouldn’t actually protect water in some circumstances.

In the end, lawmakers sided in part with the farm groups. While they won’t change the rules as much as Republicans and a few DFLers initially wanted, legislators plan to alter law so the MPCA can’t require farmers to take new steps to limit nitrogen runoff during October, when regulators said conditions can still result in pollution.

State Sen. Bill Weber
State Sen. Bill Weber
“I stated when I presented the bill originally that it was my opinion that the MPCA doesn’t really know manure about manure,” said Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican from Luverne who sponsored initial legislation to roll back the regulations. “Nothing has changed my mind since.”

Yet the change could also draw blowback from the federal government, with the MPCA warning legislators earlier this year that the EPA could potentially strip the state’s authority to write its own rules if lawmakers messed with the permit.

How and why the permit was developed

The MPCA regulations are known as the Feedlot General permit, which applies to about 1,200 businesses that raise cattle for meat and dairy or poultry and hogs. 

Just the largest feedlots have to get the permit, which is required under federal clean water laws but written and implemented by the state. A dairy farm would need to have 715 cows to fall under the permit regulations, said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, earlier this year.

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MPCA officials say those massive 1,200 farms produce about one-third of the manure in the state, waste that is often used as fertilizer to grow food for the animals. Even though using manure can carry benefits over other fertilizer, it can still seep into groundwater or wash into waterways, polluting drinking water and harming wildlife and habitat. The feedlot permit, which is revised every five years based on recent scientific research, aims to limit that pollution by restricting farming practices.

The most recent permit generally bans feedlots from applying solid manure to frozen ground in March and also limits the practice during February. The MPCA says March is a particularly high-risk month because manure can get carried into waterways when snow melts or during early-spring rains when the ground is frozen.

The revised permit also extends requirements for farmers to plant cover crops in summer months, when they apply manure to soil after harvesting their primary crop, to include September. 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.

In the first two weeks of October, farmers who apply manure would have to implement one of four nitrogen management practices, such as planting cover crops or making sure soil temperature is below 50 degrees.

Why the rules frustrated farmers

A broad range of agricultural trade groups complained that the new permit wasn’t flexible enough.

Sjostrom, from the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said the MPCA was wrong to emphasize calendar dates over natural conditions in limiting when farmers can spread manure. 

Frozen soil in the fall, for instance, can make it impossible to plant cover crops, and he said other issues can stop a farmer even if they support the idea of cover crops. In late March, the ground may not actually be frozen, and it may be a great time to spread manure.

Sjostrom also said he believes data collected by MPCA doesn’t back up the new October rules, and said he believes the fall month is low-risk for water pollution. 

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MPCA officials said the rules were more flexible, and more based on weather and natural conditions than farmers were making them out to be. Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner at the MPCA, said in May that if the ground is no longer frozen or covered with snow in March, then farmers actually can spread manure. Still, ag groups had concerns over how the permit would be implemented. Farmers worried they could get into protracted legal fights over weather and soil conditions if they spread manure in March or failed to get cover crops in the ground in the fall.

Weber introduced a bill earlier this year that would have repealed the winter and fall manure and cover crop regulations completely. In the end, lawmakers agreed to a bill that would only repeal the rules requiring nitrogen management practices in October. The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday night, and the House plans to hold a vote before the state’s current budget expires, on July 1.

The permit is now “better than what they originally came up with,” Sjostrom said. He said there is more data to justify permit regulations in March, even if he still has some concerns about legal battles over the weather. But the October change was “really what we’ve been asking for,” Sjostrom said.

Many DFLers and environmental groups defended the original permit and some pushed back on the revisions this week.

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, tried to amend the environment policy and budget bill to remove the feedlot permit measure. He said the MPCA regulations were based on science and should be kept in place. “We know that nitrogen has been increasing over recent years in our waters,” Dibble said. “It has a tremendous negative consequence for human health as well as the environment.”

Weber said all Republicans were asking for were the changes to the first two weeks of October and called the MPCA misguided. The amendment failed on a 27-37 vote. Three Democrats — Sens. Kent Eken of Audubon, Nick Frentz of North Mankato and Aric Putnam of St. Cloud — voted with Republicans to keep changes to the MPCA’s permit.

Could the EPA step in?

Absent from public discussion has been the MPCA, which resisted changes during the legislative session but declined to comment and hasn’t addressed the permit during hearings on the final negotiated deals.

But earlier in the year, the MPCA warned if legislators stepped in to mess with the permit, federal regulators could potentially remove or limit the state’s authority to write its own rules and step in instead.

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The Environmental Protection Agency also declined to comment on the legislation Wednesday, but the bill passed by the Minnesota Senate and up for consideration in the House says if the EPA disapproves of the state changes, the new law would be reversed and the permit would be restored.

The bill represents at least a partial win for Senate Republicans. For a time, the Senate GOP threatened to shut down environment spending, including state parks, if the MPCA didn’t stop its effort to implement tougher new auto emissions standards and require auto manufacturers to provide more electric cars for sale in Minnesota. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he would let that become an election issue. But Republicans did negotiate the partial rollback of the MPCA’s manure regulations.

With its new feedlot permit, Sjostrom said he didn’t think the MPCA was trying to put farmers in harm’s way. But he said “I think this one really came out a little too rigid.”