Column: State’s farmers big on conservation

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 11, 2003

By Gene Hugoson, State ag commissioner

I’ve always said that Minnesota farmers are among the most dedicated conservationists around. Give them the information and tools they need, and they’ll gladly do their part to protect Minnesota’s natural resources.

Recently, I came across more evidence to back this up. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than 2,000 Minnesota farmers have already voluntarily signed an open lot agreement with the state. The open lot agreement is a provision in the state’s animal feedlot rules that makes it easier for smaller livestock farms to meet requirements for reducing manure-contaminated water runoff from open lot feedlots.

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MPCA generally defines an open lot as a fenced area outside a barn or other uncovered area where a vegetative cover cannot be maintained within the enclosure. It may be a feeding area for cattle or exercise area for dairy cows, for example. The definition does not include pastures. Slightly more than half of the 29,000 registered animal feedlots in Minnesota report having open lots. A recent survey of local county officials suggested that about 5,800 open lots are out of compliance with the feedlot rules and could benefit from the open lot agreement in correcting runoff problems.

To be eligible, a feedlot must have fewer than 300 animal units, have existed before Oct. 23, 2000, and registered by January 2002. A signed form must be submitted to the county feedlot officer or Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regional office before Oct. 1, 2005.

It’s important that farmers are clear about several aspects of these open lot agreements. First and foremost, not all feedlots with open lots have conditions that would be considered in violation of the state’s new feedlot rules. As shown by the survey of county feedlot officers I mentioned, only about a third of the more than 17,000 open lots in Minnesota have some sort of problem.

Second, the open lot agreement is voluntary &045; it is not a permit. Most small feedlots do not even need permits under the new feedlot rule. Signing the open lot agreement does not mean an immediate inspection or penalty for runoff problems.

Another key point to realize about the open lot agreements: they allow plenty of time to comply with the conditions. The first deadline is October 2005, at which point half of the work must be completed. Final fixes are to be accomplished by October 2010.

In addition, the open lot agreements provide some protection from penalties for past violations and state law provides a limit on the cost of necessary work. In fact, many feedlots may be eligible for federal cost-share funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state cost-share funds through their local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and low-interest loans through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Best Management Practices Loan Program.

Finally, controlling feedlot runoff pays off big for the environment. When water runoff containing manure enters streams and lakes, it hurts water quality and conributes to excessive algae growth. Excessive algae growth reduces dissolved oxygen in the water, and that makes it tougher for fish to survive. The algae also turn the water green and limit recreational use. Limiting runoff from open lots can limit these negative effects on area lakes, streams and rivers.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture encourages all eligible feedlot operators to learn about the open lot agreement option. I believe when livestock producers understand these provisions, they will have greater confidence that the agreement provides economic as well as environmental benefits. For more information, contact your county feedlot officer or your MPCA regional office. Information can be found on the Web at or

(Gene Hugoson is the Minnesota commissioner of agriculture.)