DNR: Wisconsin has a strong CAFO permit program

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  Wisconsin has a strong permit program for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), according to an agricultural runoff specialist with the Wisconsin Department of National Resources.

Leah Nicol was one of the keynote speakers at a meeting of the Dunn County Livestock Operations Study Group February 16.

Nicol was at one time employed in Dunn County with the land and water conservation division but has since taken the job of agricultural runoff specialist with the DNR.

The study group, which met for the first time November 30, is operating as part of a six-month moratorium in Dunn County on expanding or developing new CAFOs that would have 1,000 or more animal units.

The focus of LOSG is to evaluate the impact of CAFOs on the health, safety and welfare of Dunn County’s residents and resources, to report on the group’s findings and to make recommendations.

The study group is made up of members of the Dunn County Board’s Planning, Resources and Development Committee, Dunn County’s planner and zoning administrator, the county conservationist, UW-Extension, other county staff members and area farmers and citizen representatives.

According to information provided to LOSG, Wisconsin has 319 existing and new CAFOs.

Out of 750,000 animal units in Wisconsin CAFOs, 73.6 percent are dairy cows, 7.1 percent are chickens, 6.5 percent are turkeys, 3 percent are heifers, and 2.7 percent are swine. 


A “large CAFO” in Wisconsin requires a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit, Nicol said.

Large is defined as 1,000 animal units or more, which translates into 700 milk cows, 1,000 beef steers, 2,500 pigs that are 55 pounds or larger or 55,000 turkeys.

The WPDES administered by the DNR is based on the National Pollutant Discharge System permit program and regulates CAFO manure and process wastewater impacts to groundwater, surface water and wetlands, Nicol said.

Dunn County currently has five dairy CAFOs, and one application is pending, Nicol said.

The dairy CAFOs include Alfalawn Farm (Menomonie), Five Star Dairy (Elk Mound), Windmill Dairy (Colfax), Denmark Dairy (Colfax) and Cranberry Creek Dairy (Rock Falls). The pending application is Squires Farm.

The Jennie-O Turkey Store out of Barron also has a portion of its operation in Dunn County, and there is a large hog facility in Chippewa County, Nicol noted.

Medium and small CAFOs may be required to obtain a WPDES issued by the DNR based upon the type of wastewater discharge they have, although medium and small CAFO discharges are typically handled through the non-point source pollution abatement programs, such as the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the DNR or individual counties, Nicol said. 

In the WPDES permit production area, the CAFO is not allowed to have any discharge of pollutants to navigable waters, must have 180 days of liquid manure storage at all times, and for cropped fields, must have a nutrient management plan and must address how, when and where manure and process wastewater is applied to fields, she said.


“As a producer, you want an engineer to design your system,” said Lee Jensen, one of the owners of Five Star Dairy and a member of the study group.

Farmers do not want to be “moving water” without a plan, he said.

The DNR has four engineers working out of Madison and one engineer working in this area of the state, Nicol said. 

Nutrient management plans are five-year plans, she said.

“You have to update your plan every year,” said Dave Styer, one of the owners of Alfalawn Farm and also a member of the study group.

The nutrient management plans must be re-permited every five years, Jensen said.

Gary Bjork, county board supervisor from Colfax, a member of the PR&D committee and acting chair of the study group at the February 16 meeting, wondered about CAFO operators hiring private engineers.

CAFOs can hire whoever they want to design their systems as long as it is someone who is certified as an agricultural engineer, Nicol said.

State regulations require at least two inspections per CAFO for every five years covered by a nutrient  management plan, she said. 

According to information provided to LOSG, in 2015, 1,591 farmers wrote their own nutrient management plans, and 5,117 farmers hired a consultant to write the nutrient management plan.

Classes are offered at Chippewa Valley Technical College to help farmers write their own nutrient management plans, Prestebak noted. 

Regulations allow farmers to write their own nutrient management plans as long as the plans comply with the NRCS 590 standard.

DATCP also offers a variety of in-person training opportunities for writing nutrient management plans.

SnapPlus, Wisconsin’s nutrient management planning software, is available for free from www.snapplus.wisc.edu.

180 days 

CAFOs are required to have 180 days of storage for liquid manure at all times, Nicol said.

For the WPDES permits, CAFOs are self-monitored and self-reporting, and the reports are required to be submitted to the DNR, she said.

The monitoring and reporting occurs on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis, depending upon the aspect of the system.

CAFO operators are required, for example, to monitor for water leaks daily.

All of the reports submitted to the DNR are always available to the public upon request, Nicol said.

The manure storage system must include room for contaminated runoff from 25-year 24-hour rain events, she said. 

The manure storage system must also include room for processed wastewater and manure, Nicol explained. 

Farmers are “diligent about their manure pits,” Styer said, noting that Alfalawn Farm has gone above and beyond the 180 day manure storage requirement and has 13 months of manure storage.

Operators have to record every week the position and condition of the manure storage system, Styer said.

The manure storage system has room at the top for a depth of 18 inches to 24 inches to accommodate a “big rain event,” he said.

The 180 days of manure storage is required, but a larger margin is “helpful” because variables in the weather can change quickly, Nicol said.


The challenge for dairy producers is having the money to spend on the needed systems, Jensen said.

For example, a CAFO operator needs to have feed storage, manure storage, feed for the cows, barns for the cattle and the dairy cows to milk, he said. 

“It would be nice to have three years (of manure) storage, but the bank won’t loan the money,” Jensen said, adding “the cash flow has to work out on paper.”

If a manure storage system overflows because of a rain event, it is considered to be a manure spill, Nicol said. 

One woman who was not part of the study group wondered if the dairy producers had ever experienced an overflow of their manure pits with 180 days of storage during a rainstorm.

On top of the 24 hour storm capacity of the manure pits, there is one foot of “free board” above the pit to give extra capacity for stormwater, and because the boards are angled, the higher the stormwater goes, the more capacity there is, said Dan Prestebak, Dunn County conservationist. 

The DNR has 90 days after a complete set of plans has been submitted to approve the WPDES permit, reject the application or approve the permit with conditions, Nicol said.

Five Star Dairy has an alarm system set up to give an alert if there are problems with manure storage, Jensen said.

The alarm systems are not required but are recommended as a best practice, Nicol said.

Instead of hauling liquid manure by truck, many of the companies that apply the liquid manure will run hoses out to the fields.

In response to Nicol saying there are no laws preventing the manure hoses from being run through streams, Styer said the manure hauler employed by Alfalawn Farm refuses to run the hoses over a bridge or through a stream.

CAFOs are not allowed to “winter spread” manure, Nicol noted.


The DNR cannot require a CAFO to meet the phosphorus limit included in the Total Maximum Daily Load implementation plan, Nicol said. 

The TMDL was developed to control phosphorus run-off in the 1,900 square mile Red Cedar River Watershed to help control toxic algae blooms in Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin.

The two lakes have been classified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as impaired waters.

The TMDL does not call for a set phosphorus standard for Tainter and Menomin, Prestebak said.

The county could pass, through a referendum, a phosphorus standard, but then it would be the county’s responsibility to monitor and be responsible for making sure the standard is met, he said.

Future meetings 

The Dunn County Livestock Operations Study Group is expected to meet again March 2.

Future speakers at upcoming meetings could include representatives for the Dunn County Highway Department, the Dunn County Towns Association and Dunn County Public Health.

The LOSG is expected to identify recommendations in April and then to develop a working draft of the report for the study group to review.

The report is expected to be presented to the Dunn County Board in May.