The livestock industry in South Dakota — among the state’s largest economic engines — is undergoing a fundamental transformation that may alter farms, farmers and rural communities for generations to come.
Despite a rising wave of grassroots opposition, South Dakota is seeing a steady increase in the development of livestock operations known as CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, in which thousands and sometimes more than a million animals are bred, housed and fed in a confined space.
Supporters of CAFO development say the farms can boost the state’s agricultural economy and strengthen rural communities. Opponents say the farms are causing division among rural populations and will limit opportunities for non-agricultural development in small-town South Dakota.
The state has seen a nearly 15 percent rise in the number of CAFOs in operation over the past decade, and the pace of development has picked up recently, with 18 new CAFOs put into production over the past 18 months.
As of October 2019, there were 452 permitted CAFOs allowed to house about 9.6 million cows, hogs, turkeys and chickens in the state, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
When it comes to CAFO development, the stakes for South Dakota are high in terms of both risk and reward.
Supporters of the farms — including Gov. Kristi Noem — see strong opportunity for expansion of the livestock and related products market, which accounted for $4.5 billion in sales in 2017, about half of the state’s total agricultural economy.
A single hog-birthing facility recently approved for a rural site south of Miller in Hand County, for example, is expected to create 19 full-time jobs with an annual payroll of $1.3 million and produce another $1.3 million in annual feed purchases.
But each new large livestock operation brings environmental and odor concerns, and for some, emotional heartache and health problems.
Lyle Reimnitz, who lives a half-mile from a Davison County hog farm permitted for 8,000 sows, said the odors and gasses from the farm prevent him from living a normal life. He and his wife suffer from headaches and respiratory problems, they rarely sit outside or hang out laundry, and they have given up on their dream of having their daughter’s family move to the farm when her husband retires from the military.
“It doesn’t smell every day, but in the evenings, especially when the wind goes down and the humidity is high, we stay inside and keep our windows shut,” said Reimnitz. “The manure pits have gasses in them, and it gives me headaches, my eyes burn and I start coughing. My doctor said if I breathe it long enough, I will end up with respiratory problems.”
Reimnitz and others fear that if livestock confinements continue to develop rapidly in South Dakota, the state may follow the path of Iowa, the national leader in large hog farms where consistent odors, waterway pollution and fish kills have resulted from heavy CAFO development.
“I don’t want to see South Dakota become another Iowa,” he said. “We don’t need all our rivers and streams polluted. I know everybody wants cheap meat, but that comes at a terrible price for people who live here.”
Each time a new CAFO project is proposed, it invariably faces objections from some neighbors and environmentalists who raise concerns over human health risks, reduction of property values, animal treatment and antibiotic use, odors, and fears of potential contamination of air, land and waterways from high volumes of animal waste.
Yet, at the same time, the state of South Dakota this year started a new effort to provide a major financial incentive to county governments that approve new CAFO projects.
Industry groups and some state officials say CAFOs provide new opportunities for existing farmers, create options for young farmers to get started and add significant financial value to the state’s largest industry.
“I do think we need more ag development in South Dakota,” Gov. Noem said in an interview with News Watch in September. “Anytime we can add value to the commodities and livestock that we raise here, it puts more money into South Dakota’s pocket and for those producers out there that are working so hard to feed the world.”
Operators and industry groups say large livestock farms are generally well run and are subject to strong permitting processes and regular inspections that don’t apply to smaller farms.
Noem said she will continue to support CAFOs as long as they are properly sited and operate within state guidelines.
“The smart thing is to make sure we’re putting these in the right locations, that we’re protecting our resources, and that we’re protecting our environment and putting them in areas where economic development can grow,” Noem said.
The vast majority of American livestock is now raised in CAFOs, with federal data showing that about 70 percent of cows, 98 percent of pigs and 99 percent of chickens and turkeys are produced in CAFOs each year.
The farms differ from traditional livestock farming in the number of animals raised and where and how they are kept.
Large CAFOs are farm operations that require a state permit and are subject to regular inspection once they reach 1,000 or more “animal units” based on weight.
Animals are kept en masse in large barns that often are segregated into smaller pens inside. Animals typically are not exposed to the sun or the elements, usually live on concrete slabs or metal slats, and sometimes stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder, especially as they age and grow closer to harvesting weight.
South Dakota has increasingly become a magnet for CAFO development by both existing local farmers and out-of-state firms. South Dakota, particularly in the east, is attractive to developers owing to access to inexpensive feed, solid infrastructure, available land and close proximity to major slaughterhouses and processing plants. The state is bordered by three states that are top-five in the nation for number of large CAFOs — Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
CAFOs provide farmers with a way to produce a high-volume, valuable and stable crop of animals in a climate-controlled setting with low capital costs for equipment and land. The ultimate result is affordable meat for a growing population of consumers in the U.S. and across the world.
Agricultural organizations say CAFOs are part of an ongoing advancement in efficiency of handling and raising animals. They also stress that the vast majority of CAFOs and other farm operations in South Dakota remain owned or operated by families.
“Agriculture has been changing for 100 years, and just like the four-row planter became the 16-row planter and then the 20-row planter, the common theme is that there’s still a family that is out there doing it,” said Steve Dick, director of Ag United, a Sioux Falls organization that represents farmers in several agricultural sectors in South Dakota.
Farmers and industry officials say that in order to make a good living in the modern agriculture industry, getting larger and creating economies of scale is one way to find success.
“This is what we’re getting pushed into doing; we’re not driving our own market, it’s demand,” said Brian Alderson, a part-time cattle farmer who raises about 600 head in a CAFO-style barn in western Minnehaha County. “You tell us what you want us to do when you go to the grocery store. It’s supply and demand, and the consumers make the rules, not us.”
The largest CAFO operations in South Dakota include the National Foods egg hatchery east of Plankinton in Aurora County with 1.98 million chickens; the Schlitz Goose Farm in Sisseton with 193,000 geese; the PIC Apex Farm in Mound City in Campbell County, with 36,400 sows; and the Fall River Feed Yard southeast of Hot Springs in Fall River County with 25,000 head of beef cattle.
But opponents worry that aggressive development of CAFOs, particularly by out-of-state firms, will change the nature of farming and rural living in South Dakota.
“Industrial CAFOs that store manure under their operations for 365 days before spreading are a separate agricultural business than compared to grazing animals that are not confined, not under a roof, but are under the sun and the air where they can naturally distribute the manure that makes it a positive, instead of a toxic overload,” said Candice Lockner, a Ree Heights rancher who opposes CAFOs.
Research done mainly in North Carolina and Iowa has shown that large livestock operations can cause health problems in farm workers and neighbors. One study found that children who live or attend school near large livestock operations suffer from higher rates of asthma. The farms emit high levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide that can harm humans, the research has shown.
According to data obtained through a public-records request by News Watch to the DENR, permitted CAFOs in South Dakota violated state regulations 217 times from October 2009 to August 2019 and $207,000 in fines were levied. Violations led to farm wastes making their way into state waterways nine times during that period, but little or no environmental damage resulted, DENR officials said.
Development of new large livestock farms and expansion of existing farms can result in large payments to counties that approve them under a new tax-rebate program started by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in spring 2019.
The majority of the recent growth has occurred in the hog industry, which has seen a 21 percent increase in permitted operations from 2011 to 2019 and a 32 percent rise in the number of permitted animals during that time.
South Dakota is also likely to see strong growth in dairy cattle CAFOs, especially in the far northeast, to accommodate expansion in the cheese-making industry.
The expansion of CAFOs in South Dakota may also be hastened by a need for room for expansion within the livestock industry in the Great Plains.
“It makes sense they are moving into South Dakota, because we’re running out of room to put the manure over here,” said David Osterberg of the Iowa Policy Project.
Kent Woodmansey, who oversees the CAFO inspection within the DENR, said new CAFOs need a permit and are inspected within the first 18 months of operation and then every one to three years after, depending on size.
Inspections are announced in advance so operators can prepare and in some cases arrange to have their outside waste management consultant present, Woodmansey said. “Otherwise we drive out there and they’re not there,” he said.
The state has no authority over strong odors because no state or federal law regulates smells released by agricultural operations.
“We won’t respond to an odor complaint because we don’t have any criteria for that,” Woodmansey said.