Fillmore County Planning Commission to consider doubling animal unit cap for feedlots

Next Thursday, the Fillmore County Planning Commission will hold a public meeting to decide whether or not to increase the number of livestock that feedlots can have.

Metz's Hart-Land Creamery
Dairy cows are seen on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, at Metz's Hart-Land Creamery in Rushford. A proposed amendment put before the Fillmore County Planning Commission, if approved, would increase the number of cattle, swine or other livestock that operations in neighboring Fillmore County can keep in a feedlot.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo

PRESTON — Next week, the Fillmore County Planning Commission will consider a proposal to raise the county's animal unit cap, catching the eye of activists who fought against a similar action five years ago.

The proposed amendment to the county's Fillmore County Feedlot Ordinance would double the number of animal units allowed in an animal feedlot from 2,000 units to 4,000 units. Animal units are determined by the weight of the livestock — a beef steer equals 1 animal unit, while a sheep equals 0.1 animal units.

The meeting and public hearing will take place on Thursday, Feb. 16.

While there are no active applications from any Fillmore County farms seeking a variance on the current animal unit cap, County Commissioner Duane Bakke — who also serves on the planning commission — said a dairy farm has met the cap but wants to expand.

"We know that they're adding family. They've got quite an operation," said Bakke. "If they're going to expand, they can't under where it's at right now."


Bakke said he led the effort to enact a county-wide animal unit cap back in 1997.

"The current 2,000 was just an arbitrary number that was put in place about 26 years ago," Bakke said. "The intent was to stop a poultry proposal that had been trying to get permitted in several counties west of Fillmore County. That was actually for 25,000 animal units, which is 2.5 million birds, which was more than we thought made sense in Fillmore County."

But now, some county residents are concerned that upping the maximum number of cattle, swine or other livestock in feedlots could contribute to environmental concerns.

When Michelle Hockersmith, who lives north of Mabel, first heard about the hearing, she said her heart sank.

"And then I sat down in a chair and was furious," Hockersmith said.

She had been involved in protests against the construction of a 1,992 animal unit-swine facility near Harmony in 2018. Catalpa Ag's quest to establish that feedlot came to an end in 2019 after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency denied the facility's permit and Catalpa withdrew its application .

In August 2018, the board for Newburg Township — where that facility would have been located — implemented a one-year moratorium on new feedlots exceeding 500 animal units.

"This was a project that we made a mammoth deal of," Hockersmith said.


Hockersmith said she is concerned about negative impacts on water quality in the region. It's a concern that other Fillmore County residents share, according to Matthew Sheets, policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project.

"Southeast Minnesota is the karst region," Sheets said. "The ground is significantly more susceptible to water pollution issues because of that geology. ... People are also worried about the effect it might have on property values in the area, as well."

In the time since the hearing was announced, Sheets said LSP has been trying to get the word out to Fillmore County residents.

"It's really letting people know that this is happening, and asking people, if they contact their ... county commissioners and the people that are on this board, to tell them how they feel about it," Sheets said, "and then attend the meeting."

Dozens of private well owners from five counties filed through the St. Charles Community Center on Thursday to learn more about a resource they use daily: water from their private wells.

If the planning commission does decide to raise the animal unit cap to 4,000, Bakke said the proposal would then go to the county board. If the cap ultimately does go up, Bakke said he doesn't envision any of the county's swine producers to expand beyond the current 2,000 animal unit limit.

"I just know from talking to pork producers that they've never had any issue with the 2,000 animal unit cap because they don't generally try to be that big — they want to move their pigs to different locations and spread them out, stuff like that," Bakke said. "When you get bigger, you've got a lot more requirements."

The planning commission meets at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16 in room 601L in the Fillmore County Courthouse.

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's health care reporter. She previously covered the Southeast Minnesota region for the Post Bulletin. Dené's a graduate of Kansas State University, where she cut her teeth working for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and the student radio station, Wildcat 91.9. Readers can reach Dené at 507-281-7488 and
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