By RICK A. RICHARDS
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Becoming a farmer, said Greg Slipher, is signing on to a career of learning and classroom time. That’s because the rules farmers play by today are constantly changing, and anyone who doesn’t keep abreast could find environmental trouble.
“I’m always amazed,” said Slipher, a livestock development specialist with the Indiana Farm Bureau. “Farmers are so trusting and don’t realize that things are radically different than they were five years ago.”
For livestock farmers, one of the biggest rule changes involves record-keeping and management practices. The Indiana Department of Environment Management (IDEM) put new rules in place on July 1 that affect every livestock operator in the state.
The rules impact confined feeding operations (CFO) and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). The primary difference between the two for IDEM is that a CAFO is a large CFO meeting different certain threshold numbers for feeding different livestock. There are 625 CAFOs in Indiana at present.
While there are several changes involving record-keeping, the biggest changes come in the application of manure to fields. It has been a longstanding practice among growers as a way to add nutrients, but IDEM rules now require them to test their soil for ingredients such as phosphorus. If the phosphorus level is too high, applying manure is prohibited.
The new regulations cap phosphorus at 400 parts per million on fields. Tamilee Nennich, an extension dairy specialist at Purdue University, said IDEM is watching phosphorus levels closely because it is a major source of water pollution caused by runoff from farm fields.
“The new rules affect all IDEM-permitted operations,” said Slipher. “When you put your manure on, you have to have a license to do so.” While smaller operations with fewer than 10,000 gallons of manure are exempt, larger operations must comply.
“The rules say farmers must have storm water management systems in place,” said Slipher. “If it rains and washes the manure off, it’s no longer a nutrient; it’s a pollutant.”
He said the new rules are forcing farmers to hire engineers to design storage and application systems to comply with IDEM. “We used to say farming is different than other businesses, but if you look at what’s been taking place the past few years, they’re converging,” he said.
“I have a hard time distinguishing that now,” said Slipher, who explained Indiana’s CFOs and CAFOs must be in compliance with the new rules by Feb. 16, 2013.
For most Hoosier farmers, the new regulations are no different than what they’re doing now, said Slipher. “But if you can’t show the regulators that you did this at an economic rate, you’ll have a problem. And that problem is usually a fish kill or other problem,” he said.
“This covers things as small as a 4-H project with seven or eight pigs or two or three horses. Is that right? I don’t know, but some people don’t like it.”
Nennich said, “It’s going to remove some acreage people have been using for manure application and increase the cost for manure removal and application. The problem with the regulations is that it’s written to be one size fits all, and in the real world that just doesn’t happen. All farms might be doing a good job now, but the rules could change that.
“One big change is that manure application is prohibited on frozen ground.”
Slipher said even though winter application of manure has taken place for decades, it isn’t allowed now because that manure could end up where it shouldn’t when the snow and ice melt in the spring.
“These changes actually aren’t a surprise,” said Nennich. “They’ve been in place in other states for some time; Indiana has just been slow to adopt them.”
A byproduct of the change, said Nennich, is that farmers will become more creative in dealing with their manure. For instance, Fair Oaks Farms in Newton County is capturing the methane from manure generated by its 30,000 dairy cows to power its fleet of 43 vehicles.
“There are some efforts by farmers to install anaerobic digesters to take care of the manure,” said Nennich. “It’s not cost-effective now, but that is changing. Producers to want to do a good job and they do want to do it correctly. The problem is right now, they feel they’re being targeted.”
Slipher said the changes are a sign of the times. “It has become a fact of life,” he noted.
Those facts include keeping land application agreements on file for five years, he said, as well as weekly inspections to make sure there are no environmental problems, an annual manure analysis and closely monitoring field tiles and outlets.
“The most common mistakes are made when you get in a hurry in the busy times in spring and fall,” said Slipher. “You just have to take care.”
Nennich said this winter is the time when farmers should study the regulations and take steps to make sure they’re in compliance.
“We really encourage producers to go through and make sure they understand the changes in their permits and work hard to make sure they are protecting the environment with their operations,” she said.