Getting beyond the bull

"Joe Bill, you'd better scrape those animal residuals off your boots before we head over to the Dairy Queen for coffee," I said.

Judging from the puzzled look on my companion's face, I could tell he wasn't up on the latest high-tech way of referring to what Texas ranchers and cowhands at their politest call cow manure. But, Joe Bill and my other friends in the cattle business may soon need to become fluent in this type of EPA-speak since environmental regulations are starting to impact agricultural operations in a big way.

As a kid growing up on a family-owned ranch near Henrietta, Texas, I frequently was up close and personal with animal residuals of the bovine and equine persuasion. They were just part of the landscape and it never occurred to me that they could hurt the environment. But, now scientific research shows that large quantities of animal waste - which contain nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens - can adversely affect water quality. The runoff can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen and result in fish kills.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working together to determine how to best regulate the discharge of animal wastes from certain types of animal feeding operations (AFOs). The worst offenders are concentrated AFOs (CAFOs), which confine or house livestock or poultry prior to the animals being sent to market for sale or to processing plants for slaughter and packaging.

The Clinton administation is attempting to tackle this issue with the National Unified Animal Feeding Operations Strategy issued in March as part of its Clean Water Action Plan. The strategy calls for all AFOs to set up nutrient management plans by 2009, and requires the largest facilities to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. To review the new action plan, visit its Web site, www.cleanwater.gov.

Not surprisingly, the strategy has sparked controversy among several agricultural groups. For example, Ross Wilson, the vice president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association who testified before the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works committee in June, complained that environmental regulations pertaining to AFOs are not consistent nationwide. In addition, Wilson questioned the scientific validity of the data that EPA is using to draw its environmental conclusions about animal agriculture's impact on U.S. waters.

In an effort to promote solutions to this growing problem, the Water Environment Federation will sponsor the Animal Residuals Management Conference in Crystal City, Va., Nov. 14-16. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will be the keynote presenter. For more information, visit WEF's Web site at www.wef.org or call 800-666-0206.

"Environmentally sound management of livestock production is one of the most challenging issues facing agriculture today," Harkin said recently. Agricultural groups and environmental regulators need to face this challenge head-on. They must get beyond their differences and work together to minimize threats to water quality, while ensuring the long-term sustainability of livestock production.

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This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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