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The Future of Feedlots in Douglas County

Posted: 04/01/2021

Category: County Board, Departments

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At its March 2 meeting, the Douglas County Commissioners approved the expansion of a dairy feedlot. It also reviewed the annual feedlot report presented by Mark Koep. He’s the county feedlot coordinator, a position in the Land & Resource Management Office which tries to balance animal agriculture with residential housing developments and an increasing number of lakeshore property owners.

Koep’s been on the job for nearly 4 years. Currently Douglas County has approximately 460 registered feedlots, the vast majority of which have fewer than 300 animal units. Most of these are small cow/calf beef operations, but there’s also a good dairy farm presence in certain parts of the county. He’s cautiously optimistic for dairy farmers in Douglas County. Koep says, “The county has about 50 dairy operations most of which have between 50 and 70 cows. Most dairy farmers are between 50 and 70 years old, so the questions become, is there anyone interested in running the dairy farm in the future? Is it profitable for the next generation to take over and raise a family on a dairy farm? Can we expand to make this option viable? Do we have enough acres?”

Koep knows about the struggles of dairy farming, and farming in general, firsthand. He often could be found milking cows at his grandpa’s at 3:30 a.m. on weekends and 3:30 p.m. after school until he graduated high school. His uncle continued to raise heifers and run the farmland with his grandpa when Koep went off to college. He assumed that his uncle would take over the operation at some point. That plan ended when his uncle passed away unexpectedly. Koep had a good career in North Dakota but when his grandpa called to see if he was interested in moving back and help out, Koep had to give it some serious thought.

“I knew I’d have to get a job in town, so when my mother-in-law pointed me to the job application for a feedlot coordinator, I thought sure, I could do that. I applied and was hired a couple months later. It’s a good fit for me, because I am very familiar with farming and I think I’ve been able to earn the farmers’ respect. I also know the challenges that farmers face.” Koep moved into his uncle’s house at the end of the family farm’s driveway and helps with the farming operation before and after his county job. He’s very thankful for the flexibility the job offers so he can continue farming on the side. “The times I want to take off to get fieldwork done, are the same times most farmers are also in the fields and too busy to meet with me, so that works out well.”

Grandpa always wanted cattle on the farm no matter what, and he wanted a few beef cows, so after Koep moved back home, he and his dad went to a farm with instructions to buy three bred red heifers. “Grandpa always loved red cows, so they had to be red” says Koep. “After we did that, my dad looked at me and said, there’s two left. I’ll buy one if you buy one. I got a grin on my face.” When asked if he wanted to call and ask his wife first, he said “Why, she’ll just say no, and I’ll probably buy it anyway, and then she’ll be even more mad.” They now have about 25 cattle, along with an 18-month old boy, and twin girls that arrived in late March.

His job as feedlot coordinator is to register, inspect and permit livestock facilities in the county. He doesn’t see himself as a regulator with a hammer but more so as a consultant with knowledge of the rules and regulations. He helps the farmer understand what needs to be done (if anything) and how to get from point A to point B. This can include permitting, assistance with various cost-share programs, project facilitation, meeting with contractors, engineers and more. Koep adds “for most farmers, they will only do one feedlot project in their lifetime, so they are constantly asking questions, which is great. If they’re not asking questions that tells me they’re not interested in the project. With any project like this, the farmer needs to be invested and wanting to do the project. I don’t want someone to do a project because I want them to do it. I want them to do it because they want to do it.”

Koep has to visually inspect a minimum 7 percent of the county’s feedlots each year. This includes review and inspection of the facilities and their manure management practices and record-keeping. Except for extreme circumstances, he does not tell the farmers what they have to do, he shares what it is they can’t do according to the regulations, provides ways to minimize concerns on their farm, but ultimately leaves the ball in their court when it comes to solving an issue.

He said they have only received a couple proposals for new feedlots over the last 10 years. He explains that it’s mostly because it’s not cost-effective, especially if you don’t already have the land and equipment. “All of the projects we see are at existing farms,” Koep says. “From talking to farmers, I believe there’s limited opportunity for a large operation to move into Douglas County because there’s simply not enough agricultural land in close proximity, with good access, to spread manure, grow feed, etc. Many of our heavy ag areas already have feedlots and acres being used for manure and feed. It would almost have to be somebody already here that has the land base to support such an operation, and support from the community around them. When you compare parts of Douglas County to areas south or west of here, it might take twice the land base here as it would in say, Wilkin County or Stevens County. That doesn’t even take into account the number of rural homes and property owners Douglas County has relative to other areas where large feedlots are more common.”

He says long-established farms dominate in Douglas County and the families who own them work hard to be successful. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t occasionally a concern about odor or manure when a request is made to expand the number of permitted animals. “The county has approved residential developments in areas close to farms and there’s the occasional tension when neighbors air concerns about a farmer who’s been in the area his whole life,” says Koep. Typically, he says, the new neighbors don’t complain about the existing farm, but when the farm is looking to expand for the first time in 20, 30, 40 years, these competing interests often bump heads.

“The difficulty for the farmer is, it’s nearly impossible and unrealistic to just move and start a bigger farm elsewhere. Additionally, if there’s an environmental concern with the existing operation, it’s hard to justify investing money to address the issue without simultaneously expanding. Fixing a runoff issue is great, but good luck getting it to cash flow and getting the banker on board without adding income to the operation. I compare many of the projects I work with to a 50-year-old cabin on the lake that needs major upgrades or total replacement. How likely are you to rebuild within the same footprint or smaller? A quick trip around the chain of lakes would suggest not very likely.”

The county’s Land and Resource Development Office reviews requests for housing developments and requests to change how a piece of property is used. There is a Planning Commission that meets twice a month. Its members physically view properties to determine whether a request fits within the rules and regulations including the zoning district, and that it is compatible with the neighborhood. The public is invited to share its opinions at those meetings. The Planning Commission then makes a recommendation to the entire county board.

Members of the public did submit letters of concern and letters of support regarding the latest feedlot expansion which permits the number of animal units to increase from 587 to 760. It’s one of the largest feedlots in Douglas County in terms of total animal units. Koep says he sees operations this size as few and far between, but expansions of this size as common. “Most of our proposals are requesting to add another 100-200 animal units, and we get about 2 a year on average. This application was unique because they already had 587 animal units, whereas the majority we see are currently in the 100-200 total animal unit range.”

For more information on feedlots and land use in Douglas County, call the Land & Resource Management Office at 320-762-3863.

 

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