Defending Agriculture: What Environmental Activists Don’t Want the Public To Know About CAFOs

By: John George, PE, Ag Engineering Associates

We’ve all heard their many platitudes of those against confined animal feeding operations.
• Agriculture is the biggest contributor to water pollution in the U.S.
• “Factory Farms” are a major threat to our nation’s waters, Etc.

When evaluated with documentable facts, these platitudes ring pretty hollow, or more often are downright wrong. It is important for those in agriculture to understand and know the truth.

Agriculture has for thousands of years, and continues to rely broadly upon land utilization of animal manure as a staple nutrient source for food and crop production. Were it not for this “built-in” recycling of organic nutrients, much more energy and other resources would be consumed to produce and utilize replacement chemical fertilizers to produce our food and other agricultural products.

While concentrated animal manure, if discharged into public waters, would have significant impact upon water quality, there are no large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with a routine discharge to the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). If a CAFO has a discharge, it is typically the result of a relatively rare and extreme storm event runoff or snowmelt from a confinement pen, a feedlot, etc.

The majority of large open lot CAFOs are located in the arid high plains or Southwestern U.S. where rainfall is low, and flowing streams and rivers are few and far between. Due to the expansive geography and limited hydrologic features, most of these CAFOs have no or very little potential to discharge to the WOTUS. Additionally, virtually all of these CAFOs have runoff controls that provide EPA-defined Best Available Treatment (BAT) for CAFOs. Runoff and manure is typically retained for nutrient and water recycling to crop production.

Of all the large CAFOs in the U.S.,(which includes poultry, beef, dairy, and swine facilities) the majority are roofed with manure management systems that are totally contained and virtually immune from weather induced discharge. Nationwide, few large CAFOs ever have a discharge at all.

Organizations seeking to create controversy to raise funds for their support typically ignore this fact, or, worse, actively seek to misrepresent the lack of impacts that CAFOs have on the WOTUS. News stories relating objections to proposed CAFOs as “producing manure quantities equivalent to cities populated by hundreds of thousands of people” typically infer impacts on the WOTUS as though all of that manure is or may be discharged instead of the more realistic “NONE.” When storms of large magnitude occur, CAFOs have controls in place, but those large cities coincidentally bypass large flows of raw or only partially treated sewage, it rarely makes the news at all.

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