MEA report

There's Not Enough Land In Wisconsin To Safely Dispose Of CAFO Manure

A 2022 report by MEA and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that some areas of the state, including Kewaunee County and portions of the Central Sands, do not have enough available agricultural land to safely dispose of the manure generated by animal feeding operations. The report raises concerns about the potential expansion of industrial-scale livestock operations in areas that are already grappling with drinking water pollution.

A report by MEA and the Environmental Working Group found there is not enough land in parts of the state to safely dispose of CAFO manure.

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Overapplication of manure and commercial fertilizers

Using aerial imagery and publicly available data, EWG and MEA modeled current rates of application for commercial fertilizer and animal manure in nine Wisconsin counties. The analysis, which is the first of its kind in Wisconsin, shows that fertilizer and manure are being applied to farmland at rates that far exceed what is needed by crops growing in the surrounding area

Nitrogen and phosphorus in manure and commercial fertilizer are essential crop nutrients, but excess nutrients caused by overapplication of manure and fertilizer can cause nitrate contamination of groundwater and pollute Wisconsin’s rivers, lakes and streams.


An Overwhelming Amount of Manure in Kewaunee County

The number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Wisconsin has dramatically increased over the past few decades. As CAFOs multiply and grow larger, they continue to pump out massive amounts of manure for disposal. The trend has been especially devastating in places like Kewaunee County, where fractured bedrock and shallow soils make groundwater vulnerable to pollution. Kinnard Farms, located in Kewaunee County, is one of the state’s largest dairy CAFOs. The farm was at the center of a landmark legal decision in July in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the state’s authority to limit the number of animals allowed under the farm’s permit and to require the farm to monitor groundwater quality in areas where large amounts of manure are spread.

As a result of the ruling, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is now required to revisit permits for Kinnard Farms and a number of other large CAFOs. Neighbors of Kinnard Farms point to the report by EWG and MEA as evidence that the DNR must set an animal until limit that does not allow for future expansion.


A Drinking Water Crisis in the Central Sands

Residents of Wisconsin’s Central Sands region are equally concerned about CAFO expansion and contamination of their drinking water. The new report by EWG and MEA modeled manure and fertilizer application in Portage County and found that—as in Kewaunee County—manure and fertilizer are being applied at rates that already exceed the available agricultural fields’ crop nutrient needs.

In response to the growing crisis, the DNR began developing new rules in 2019 for the application of manure and commercial fertilizer in the Central Sands and other vulnerable areas of the state. Despite strong public support, the new environmental protections faced opposition from industrial agriculture groups and their allies in the legislature, and in November, the DNR announced that it would abandon its efforts.

The news that the DNR would not move forward with new groundwater protections was especially disappointing for residents of Nelsonville, where half of all private wells tested are considered unsafe due to pollution from agricultural fertilizer and manure. The ongoing water quality crisis has led local residents to call for increased accountability and oversight of large livestock operations.


A Critical Lack of Information

While the report provides a clearer picture of agriculture practices in those areas, it also reveals a critical lack of publicly available data that hinders the ability of state and local officials to take meaningful action to address agricultural pollution. For example, there is a lack of publicly available data on county-level commercial fertilizer sales and application in Wisconsin. Likewise, there is relatively little publicly available information regarding the location and size of unpermitted livestock operations and the amount of manure they produce.

Moreover, county conservationists and local conservation departments are underfunded and understaffed, making it challenging to oversee agricultural operations and understand the effects that animal waste and non-point source pollution have on the land and water. As the volume of manure increases, it becomes even more difficult to track and regulate.

“A comprehensive assessment of the capacity of Wisconsin’s rural landscape to handle its manure and fertilizer load is long overdue,” said MEA Senior Staff Attorney Andrea Gelatt. “That assessment must drive decisions about whether to allow CAFO expansion or to set reasonable limits on expansion so that families in rural Wisconsin can have the clean water they deserve.”