Selecting a Cattle Feedlot Site

Curt Zimmerman believes the cattle industry is starting to return to the Midwest—and he’s here to help.“Not that it’s ever left entirely,” says Zimmerman, who is livestock development supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “But we get more and more calls and inquiries from the western and southern state operators who are looking to relocate. The ability to grow feedstuffs and convert that into some value-added meat, whether it be beef, pork, poultry, or milk, is getting to be more and more attractive; we’ve had more cows in the state of Minnesota than we’ve had since 2002. The profit picture is not as rosy,” he acknowledges, “but we’re hoping that will change really quickly.”
 

Curt Zimmerman believes the cattle industry is starting to return to the Midwest—and he’s here to help.“Not that it’s ever left entirely,” says Zimmerman, who is livestock development supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “But we get more and more calls and inquiries from the western and southern state operators who are looking to relocate. The ability to grow feedstuffs and convert that into some value-added meat, whether it be beef, pork, poultry, or milk, is getting to be more and more attractive; we’ve had more cows in the state of Minnesota than we’ve had since 2002. The profit picture is not as rosy,” he acknowledges, “but we’re hoping that will change really quickly.”
 

The MDA, like other Upper Midwestern states, offers a service to help livestock feeders with siting decisions; compliance with regulations can get complicated. “We have individual, local control in Minnesota,” Zimmerman explains. “Each township and county has the ability to decide what they want to have for animal ordinances; a majority would go with their county zone provisions.” Some of the local regulations are extremely restrictive for reasons such as topography, soil conditions and the local crop mix. “We would make sure that the producers would know in which areas livestock production is welcomed and in which ones we need to be more cautious and careful,” he says.

That advice is one of many services offered by Zimmerman’s department. “We look at where you’re currently operating,” he says. “Are you environmentally sound in your operation? If not, are there some cost-share fix dollars that are available from either the county or the state that would help correct your situation?” The MDA can also provide technical expertise, arrange a tour of similar, nearby facilities, and help the producer with any needed permits.   What they do, he jokes, “may be similar to getting a warning ticket when you get stopped by the Highway Patrol—you’re not given a fine or have to pay a fee; you’re given basically an overview of your situation and that’s what we provide.”
Regulations differ from state to state; Steve Pohl, a professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at South Dakota State, says it’s important to have an understanding of your own state’s rules, particularly with regard to manure management. “I’ll use South Dakota as an example,” says Pohl. “Any time we’re over 1,000 animal units, they need to get a state permit. How they end up handling the manure; whether they go with a sediment basin, then a holding pond or an evaporation pond. And then, they have to have a manure management plan as well.”
One place to avoid putting a feedlot is over a high water table or where the aquifers are near the surface. “You can work around them,” Pohl says, “but it ends up being relatively expensive; you end up having to line the holding pond. Also, you need to have drainage off of those lots so you want some slope on them; we usually look roughly at that 2-4% range, some higher than that so you get good drainage off the lots. The thing you want to avoid is a muddy feedlot; from a reduction of performance standpoint, we need to make sure that we get adequate drainage from the lots.”
From a regulatory standpoint, he says, producers typically have to install a holding pond for livestock waste. There are three options—a lagoon which Pohl says is impractical in most regions, a holding pond from which the effluent is pumped; or an evaporation pond which requires less pumping. Engineers are also studying the potential of vegetative treatment systems for larger feedlots although the EPA has not yet approved them for permitted lots.
In terms of specs, Pohl says most lots are 300-400 sq. ft. although a well-drained lot can get down to 250 ft. The concrete pad needs to provide at least a 12 ft. apron along the bunkline and many lots are going up to 16 ft. “Make sure you’ve got enough water space,” he says, “and cattle have access to water. That should also be part of the concrete layout. We normally go roughly 30-40 ft. off the bunkline and put in our waterers. And make sure you’ve got concrete all the way around the water so cattle can move around.”
Typically, a cattle feeder will either hire a private consultant to help design the site or rely on assistance from the Extension Service or USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But if it’s a larger, regulated lot, a consulting engineer is a must in order to get the manure management plan approved; in many cases, cost-share money is available through USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Regulatory requirements increasingly dictate feedlot site selection, and in some cases it’s too costly to retrofit an existing operation; it has to be moved. Pohl describes one situation as a creek that didn’t run all the time, “but the drainage area ran right through the feedlot, and then it ended up in a lake so we had to abandon that feedlot. You have to look at what the environmental impact of the lot is, and if there’s something you can do with that lot, number one, it’d probably cost too much to make it meet the requirement, and sometimes it’s cheaper to go to another site.”
Kevin Carstensen certainly agrees. “The best advice I could give anybody for locating a feedlot would be as far away from a river or creek as you possibly could,” says the Odebolt, Iowa, cattleman who is past chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Private Properties and Environmental Management Committee.
Carstensen’s feedlot holds under 1,000 head and is not subject to Clean Water Act permitting requirements; still, he had a runoff problem and felt the need to put in some control measures. “There were cost-share dollars available,” he says, “so we put a containment wall and concrete settling pads at the bottom of our lots, and then those drain into a vegetative filter strip which has gravel spreaders that cause them to really slow and spread the flow through the whole system. It really works good; it’s doing a whale of a job for us.”
Although he says, “It was just the right thing to do”, Carstensen also notes Iowa law requires livestock feeders to maintain total control of their effluent. “You know you’ve got a problem when the DNR comes knocking on your door,” he laughs. “But anytime you’re discharging, it’s a problem.”
The most important aspect, he says, is maintaining the south slope of the lot; it has to be steep enough so water can escape the lot with adequate containment at the base. “South slopes always dry better and protect a little bit from the north winds in the winter,” he says. “Our lots are relatively flat, and in the spring of the year they can get a little bit muddy so a little more slope sure wouldn’t hurt.” He recommends at least 5% and preferably 10% in his part of northwest Iowa. “The main thing is just to have a way to slow that water down when it’s leaving the feedlot and get the solids settled down in the feedlot before it leaves.”
Cartstensen says many feeders are turning to monoslope buildings or hoop barns. Both provide improved cattle comfort offering shelter from the summer sun and winter wind plus ventilation; since they’re under a roof, there’s no runoff. They do cost quite a bit more than an open feedlot, but their proponents argue that they pay for themselves with improved performance. Site selection should take into account the potential for expansion; Carstensten says for logistical reasons such as feedstuff and feed mixing location, you’d want to be able to expand outward rather than have to build on a second, distant site. 
Maintaining good neighbor relations is important; through his agency Zimmerman tries to ensure plans for a new or expanded feeding operation are heard by the neighbors directly from the cattleman instead of second- or third-hand. They find they’re scheduling more and more tours of existing facilities and inviting not only feeders, but also members of county and township boards. “If they’re not familiar with this type of a facility—you’re looking at a certain size or a certain type of new technology that’s put in place—you’d maybe want to bring a busload or a couple of carloads of people,so that the people that are going to make the decision on the permit have a chance to see the operation as well,” he says.
For the time being, though, Zimmerman thinks the need to locate feedlots farther and farther out in the country has eased.   “With the housing market like it is,” he says, “and that $4 gas we had here a year ago, it’s got more and more people wondering if it’s so wise to be located so far away from an urban center if that’s where your job is. So it’s not maybe the pressure that we had a while back.”