manure and water

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I have been wondering lately what kind of conversations are going on inside the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) about animal waste.  Admittedly, not a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about, but they’ve been giving me reason to the past couple of weeks.

Last Friday, the MPCA sent out a press release to herald the benefits of using manure from feedlots as fertilizer for farmers’ fields.  I don’t like the idea of confining animals in small spaces and producing giant vats of animal waste for the sake of raising food when systems that use pasture seem to be both economical and environmentally superior.  However, I shrugged off the press release with the thought that if your going to have all of this waste, it is probably better off spread on a farmer’s field than somewhere else – say a playground. 

Then on Monday, the MPCA announced a public comment period was open for the need to clean up Lake Independence – just west of Minneapolis.  One of the sources sited for the excess nutrients in the lake? “Livestock manure.”

Two hours later, the MPCA announced a public comment period was open for the Sunrise River cleanup plan related to fecal contamination.  The first of the three mentioned sources for the contamination?  “Unregulated livestock facilities”

Ninty minutes after that, the MPCA announced a public comment period was open for the Lower Otter Tail River clean up plan related to too much sediment being in the water (known to wonks as a turbidity problem).  Two of the problems mentioned for this pollution were wind erosion and lack of cover crops on fields.   Both problems I associate with the fact that we are growing rows and rows of corn and soy so that we can then turn around and feed that to animals kept off the land and in confinements.  Both problems could also be aided by the increased use of pasture as a means of livestock production – from my understanding of it anyway. 

Information on all of these clean up studies are available at the MPCA website and the public comment periods run to the end of November. To be fair, there are other sources of the pollution that need to be clean up as well in each case.

The next day, the MPCA announced that they had fined a feedlot $17,000 for spilling 25,000 gallons of manure.  Luckily, non of it seemed to have reached water this time.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not very knowledgable about most agricultural issues, but wouldn’t it make more sense for the MPCA to put out a press release advocating for increased use of pastureland rather than one touting the benefits of spreading feedlot waste followed by four more press releases detailing pollution problems stemming in part from feedlots?


4 Responses to “manure and water”

  1. tom

    Excellent post Jon. One can wonder away the days trying to figure out who the MPCA is serving, and how they’re going about that task.

    It’s mildly related to the topic, but I did want to point out an exciting development involving the melding of ethanol production and feedlots. A company called E3 is creating the first closed-loop ethanol plant/feedlot.

    Here’s an excerpt of the story:

    The closed-loop system — derived from an exclusive patent co-owned by an affiliate of E3 BioFuels — combines a 25-million-gallon ethanol refinery, beef cattle feedlot and anaerobic digesters to maximize energy efficiencies unavailable to each component on a standalone basis. The system eliminates the potential for manure to pollute watersheds, and it enables the wet distillers grain from ethanol production to be fed on-site to cattle without energy-intensive drying and transportation costs.

    I’m sure there are some cons to those pros, but its forward thinking none the less.

  2. Jon

    Thanks for the link Tom.

    I have heard of something along these lines, except it involved one of the agri-giants (I think Cargill) working with a coal plant in North Dakota to use waste heat from the plant to provide steam for the ethanol production, which would provide food for cattle, whose manure would be spread on the corn fields…

    Certainly I appreciate the effiecient use of resources – and I like closed loops – but there definitely seem to be shades of grey here when it comes to how we produce our energy in this country.

  3. Anne Wiegand


    Thank you for bringing to light an important topic! I coordinate the Fish Kill Advisory Network for the Izaak Walton League of America. We collect fish kill and manure spill data from five states. Over 400 fish kills in the Upper Mississippi River basin over the last 20 years have been significant enough to be documented by state agencies. This shows there is a real problem with manure waste in our water.

    Animal waste can be a beneficial nutrient, when properly managed. Often confined operations of 100 animal units to 10,000 animal units can mishandle manure. It isn’t as much about the size as it is about diligence and smart management plans.

    The League has long standing policy for a moratorium on confined animal feedlot operations. We support pasture raised, rotationally grazed animals. However, working within our current food system requires some sort of common ground.

    The MPCA must feel the need for common ground acutely. They have seemed to be on the side of confinement operations. For instance, in the past, they have not had centrally stored manure spill information nor have they shared the information with the public. The FKAN program has struggled to gather information on manure spills from the MPCA. As of the last year, they have been much more forthcoming with information. The fact that you can reference information from their website is a step in the right direction!

    Moving the public to acknowledge how manure spills can be detrimental to water quality, their fishing holes and swimming opportunities is the step we all face now. Now is the time to share this message with others- your food choices impact your surroundings. If you value clean air, clean water and outdoor recreation pick the food that can be produced with good manure management. Maps and other information are available from our office – email awiegand @ or our website-

    Additionally, closed loop ethanol production facilities sited near a feedlot can be a problem if there are financial incentives that encourage the production of large confined feedlot operations. Closer research and quality of life analysis should be completed and reviewed before we sign off on systems such as that.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic! Let the MPCA know you support their work to ensure animal production facilities manage manure in the best way possible.


    Anne WIegand
    Agricultural Programs Assistant and GIS Technician