POLK COUNTY — All livestock produce manure, there’s no getting around that.
That manure provides valuable nutrients for soil, nutrients that might otherwise be sourced from methane (natural gas) or mined minerals. However, those nutrients (and the microbial component of manure) have the potential to pollute surface water and groundwater, so manure handling needs to happen with planning and foresight.
Regulation of CAFOs plays an important role in protecting water quality. In Oregon, CAFO is an acronym for Confined Animal Feeding Operation and is pronounced with a short “A”, just like the “a” in “animal”. Permitting is handled by the CAFO Program at the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) via a memorandum of understanding with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Oregon has been very progressive in the development and implementation of its CAFO permitting program. Operations that confine animals long enough for manure to accumulate or that otherwise have agricultural wastewater (such as from egg washing or cleaning a milking parlor) need to have a CAFO permit. In Polk County, there are 12 permitted CAFOs. Across Oregon, there are over 500 CAFO-permitted farms. They range in size from small to large and house goats, sheep, poultry, horses, pigs, beef cattle, and dairy cattle (all licensed dairy farms have CAFO permits). These farms produce meat, milk, eggs, and fiber for our communities. The manure from these livestock fertilizes local fields, providing crops with essential nutrients for growth and contributing to the organic matter component of the soil.
While the exact requirements differ by size of operation, all CAFOs must have an animal waste management plan that details the type and number of animals and their manure volumes; a description of the manure handling system, storage facilities, and process; and a map of the property noting manure destinations and the methods of application. A plan also includes protocols for testing and monitoring nutrients (in soil, manure, and crop uptake) and for record keeping, which includes tracking the amounts of animal waste applied on site and the quantity exported off the farm for use elsewhere.
A State Livestock Water Quality Specialist from the CAFO program inspects each permitted facility approximately every 10 months, to check that operations are following their animal waste management plans. Inspection visits are not strictly regulatory; they provide an opportunity for communication between farmers and ODA. The CAFO program works to maintain water quality through guidance and inspection. Another key responsibility of the program is to investigate suspected animal waste discharges. Violations of the state’s agricultural water quality rules—while holding a CAFO permit or not—can result in substantial fines. Any money collected in fines goes toward education.
While animal waste is, admittedly, dirty, the term “CAFO” shouldn’t be. In Oregon, the CAFO program provides oversight for livestock producers with regard to manure and other potential sources of run-off. CAFO permit holders have dedicated time, effort, and money to creating and executing their animal waste management plans. Their efforts protect water quality, build soil health, and ultimately, provide food for us all.