David L. Morris: Vet Column 1-24-11

David L. Morris, DVM, Ph.D. Fort Collins, Colo.

As the United States presses toward 310 million residents and beyond, the rural/urban interfaces will continue to offer challenges and the need for resolutions. As livestock owners did before it was even called environmental stewardship, and even if they were not near urban populations, taking care of the water, air, or land was and remains fundamental to farming and ranching. As time has progressed, documenting the practices employed has and will continue to be an important component of management.

Investigators from North Dakota State University and Michigan State University recently published a scientific article describing citizen complaints concerning livestock operations in Michigan. There were 1,289 complaints coming from 74 of the 83 Michigan counties over a 10 year period from 1998 to 2007. If an environmental complaint is received in Michigan, an inspection is scheduled by the Michigan Department of Agriculture within seven business days.

Citizen complaints were grouped into five categories: odor, surface water, ground water, combination, or other. Complaints were further classified as non-verified or verified. Verified meant that the inspected farm was not complying with relevant generally accepted agricultural and management practices.

Over the 10-year period, the most common complaint types were odor and surface water, which together accounted for 75 percent of all complaints. Dairy producers (32 percent), beef producers (16 percent), and horse facilities (15 percent) received the largest share of complaints. Put in perspective, dairy farms account for only 4.4 percent of Michigan farms. Beef farms represent 21 percent and horse farms account for only 5.4 percent of Michigan farms. In this study, Michigan dairy farms and horse farms received a proportionally higher number of citizen complaints.

Dairy, beef, and equine enterprises were the focus of the majority of surface water complaints. Dairy and swine operations received the greatest number of odor complaints. By complaint status, 45 percent of complaints were classified as non-verified and 55 percent of complaints were classified as verified. The verified group included enforcement level complaints. Dairy, beef, and equine farms received more verified complaints.

Poultry and swine farms received fewer verified complaints. Poultry and swine farms had a 29 percent and 20 percent less probability of having a verified complaint than dairy farms. There was also an 8 percent increase is verified complaints when the complainant and the farm were not in the same zip code.

Accepting that manure storage can be a problem in winter in Michigan, the data indicate that the probability of a verified complaint was not dependent upon manure storage type. Even more interesting, the probability of a verified complaint was not associated with the number of animal units. In fact, as the number of animal units increased, the probability of a verified complaint actually declined. Larger operations were less likely to have a verified complaint. This was largely attributed to larger operations implementing newer technologies and emphasizing site selection. It also meant that larger operations received more non-verified complaints.

About 2 percent of United States residents are actively engaged in farming as a commercial operation. A larger percentage resides in rural areas in direct proximity to farms. No matter where livestock and farming owners are located, it is important to abide by generally accepted agricultural and management practices. One never knows where complaints may arise.