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EPA Announces New Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) Rules

Farm Business Management Update, February/March 2003

By Jim Pease

In December 2002, EPA announced new regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These regulations replace 25-year old technology requirements and permitting regulations and are the product of a multi-year rule making procedure spanning two presidential administrations. Under the new rules, approximately 15,500 livestock operations are expected to have to apply for the same type of permit as required for public wastewater treatment plants and industrial manufacturing facilities.

Animal feeding operations (AFOs) are agricultural businesses that keep and raise animals in confined situations. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise 'harvesting' the feed themselves. There are approximately 450,000 AFOs in the U.S. CAFOs are a subset of AFOs that are defined as point sources of pollution (primarily from nutrients and pathogens in manures) and, hence, subject to the permitting requirements of the U.S. Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is the principal federal legislation protecting surface water quality in the U.S. The new legislation will require managers of all large CAFOs to apply for a permit, submit an annual report, and implement a plan they have developed to dispose of manure and wastewater. The rule attempts to eliminate current exemptions from permit requirements if the CAFO discharges pollutants only in the event of a major storm, it eliminates the current exemption for dry manure handling systems (like Virginia's litter-based poultry systems), and it extends coverage to immature swine and dairy heifers. Under previous regulations approximately 4,500 operations were defined as CAFOs, although less than 2,500 operations had permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program of the Clean Water Act.

Any AFO, if found to be a significant contributor of pollutants, can be designated as a point source of pollution and, hence, be required to seek a permit to continue operation. Regulatory definitions for small, medium, and large CAFOs are based on (1) size thresholds, and (2) operations and environmental impact considerations. Large CAFOs are defined solely on size thresholds, i.e. if the number of animals in the operations exceeds the threshold, it is considered a large CAFO, and management will be required to seek a permit. If the number of animals falls in the medium range, it may be defined as a CAFO if the operation: (1) has a man-made conveyance carrying manure or wastewater to surface water, or (2) animals come into contact with surface water passing through the confinement area. The size thresholds for large and medium CAFOs include the following:

  Size Threshold (number of animals)
Animal Sector Large (greater or equal to) Medium
Cattle 1,000 300 - 999
Mature dairy cows 700 200 - 699
Hogs over 55 lbs. 2,500 750 - 2,499
Hogs under 55 lbs. 10,000 3,000 - 9,999
Turkeys 55,000 16,500 - 54,999
Layers/Broilers (liquid manure system) 30,000 7,000 - 29,999
Broilers (dry system) 125,000 37,500 - 124,999
Layers (dry system) 30,000 10,000 - 29,999
Horses 500 150 - 499

As soon as an operation exceeds the number specified for a large CAFO, a permit for operations is required. If the operation falls in the medium range, it would seem that the two indicated conditions would not likely be violated thus causing the AFO to become subject to the CAFO permitting process. However, there is a twist: the regulations define manure application not in compliance with acceptable management practices to be a 'manmade conveyance' or discharge to surface water. In other words, the medium-sized operations must follow certain manure handling guidelines to avoid regulation as a CAFO.

Another critical new element of the regulations is elimination of the exemption that allowed most livestock operations to escape permitting. Most states, including Virginia, currently define a CAFO as an operation that does not have enough manure storage to handle the rainfall from a very large storm (once in 25 years, 24-hour rainfall). If the operation has at least that much storage, it will not be regulated as a CAFO. Therefore, Virginia has no CAFO's under the regulatory program (VPDES) that the state administers for EPA. Instead, the Virginia Pollution Abatement (VPA) program implements state law requiring permits of all operations with 300 or more animal units (200 animal units for poultry).

Major elements in (or not in) the new CAFO regulations include:

EPA estimates that nutrient pollution from CAFOs will be reduced by 166 million pounds per year (23%) and pathogen pollution reduced by 46% through compliance with the new regulations. The total annualized compliance costs for CAFOs are estimated to be $326 million, and that the social benefits from the regulations for water uses such as recreation and drinking water will total between $204 million to $355 million. EPA estimates that the following number and types of AFOs will be permitted under the new CAFO regulations:

Animal Sector Large CAFOs Medium CAFOs
Fed Cattle 1,766 174
Veal 12 230
Heifer 242 7
Dairy 1,450 1,949
Hogs 3,924 1,485
Broilers 1,632 520
Layers: Dry Manure 729 26
Layers: Wet Manure 383 24
Turkeys 388 37
TOTAL 10,526 4,452

It is impossible to estimate how many Virginia AFOs will be required to seek a permit under the revised regulations rather than under the VPA permit system. The proposed regulations issued by EPA in 2001 estimated 216 Virginia AFOs with more than 1,000 animal units, and 551 AFOs with 300-1,000 animal units, but it appears that all estimates of existing operations affected have been changed from those of the proposed regulations.

States are given considerable flexibility in determining the specific requirements of CAFO permits. Considering that VPA permits already include many provisions more restrictive than the national regulations, it is likely that few Virginia operations will be seriously affected by compliance with the national regulations. Senator Watkins has already introduced SB896 in the Virginia General Assembly to begin the process of modifying state permitting programs to comply with the new national standards. For more information on the new regulations, see the EPA Web site at

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