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Key Considerations in Developing Livestock Ordinances

Livestock Update, August 1999

Allen Harper, Virginia Tech Extension Animal Scientist - Swine, Tidewater AREC

Several Virginia counties in the southside region are in the process of establishing or changing local ordinances that govern livestock feeding operations on agriculturally zoned properties. Local citizen input to planning commissions and supervisor boards is vital to such a process. When making this input it is important to understand the purpose and effects that certain ordinances will have on the use of farmland in agricultural zones within the county.

Protection verses exclusion. Setback distances for animal facilities from property boundaries or neighboring structures are intended to prevent a livestock facility from causing routine offensive odor, dust, and insect problems at neighboring property. These problems are complex and setback distance, while very important, is not the only factor involved. The number and size of animals maintained, the quality of management, the type of facilities, and the topography of the site would all factor into the potential for odor problems.

Setback distances ranging from a several hundred feet to several miles have been proposed or adopted in various localities. Very short setback distances from nearby residences or public facilities may not offer adequate prevention of odor or dust problems from larger confined swine, poultry, dairy or beef feeding operations. On the other extreme, large setback distances may virtually eliminate the opportunity for most owner-operators of farmland to engage in a confined animal feeding enterprise. This is especially true in southside Virginia where farms tend to be modest in size and irregular in geographic shape. For example, if a farm was perfectly round in shape and a livestock facility could be located at the geographic center (a rare possibility), setback distance from the property boundary of 1 mile (5280 ft.) would dictate that the farm would need to be over 2010 acres in size to engage in the livestock enterprise. In this same example a setback from the property boundary of 4000 ft. would dictate a farm size of 1150 acres, and a property line setback of 2000 ft. would dictate a farm size of 288 acres. Although this is a hypothetical example, it raises some important considerations. Extreme setback distances conceived as methods of neighbor protection may effectively eliminate the ability of a farm owner to engage in a livestock feeding enterprise.

The need to preserve farm options and alternatives. The economic challenges facing those who earn all or part of their living in production agriculture may be greater now than at any other time in modern history. Commodity prices for corn, wheat, barley and soybeans are all severely low and periodic weather extremes frequently reduce crop yield. Likewise producers of cattle, milk and hogs are facing reduced selling prices. Tobacco production, the mainstay of southside Virginia's farm economy, continues to be weakened by allotment reductions and legal problems for the companies that purchase tobacco.

No single alternative enterprise can correct these circumstances. However, for some farms under certain conditions, branching into a swine or poultry feeding enterprise may offer some stabilization in farm income. In the case of pigs or poultry, such enterprises typically involve a marketing contract or production contract with a feed mill or meat processing company. This method of production is not suitable for every farmer. But for some it offers the potential for reduced price risk with moderate but steady returns. Livestock ordinances designed to exclude certain types of animal agriculture may reduce an already short list of viable farm enterprises available to owner-operators of southside Virginia farms.

Fear of the North Carolina model. From 1980 through the early 1990's, growth of swine production in the state of North Carolina was phenomenal. USDA data indicates a swine herd size in 1980 for North Carolina of 2,460,000 head. By 1997 that figure had increased to 9,700,000 head. Most of this exceptional growth occurred by 1992. During this same era swine inventory in many other states remained stable or declined. In Pennsylvania for example the 1980 swine inventory was 980,000 head and in 1997 the herd size was 1,000,000 head. In Indiana the 1980 herd was 4,600,000 head and in 1997 it was 3,800,000 head.

Compared to North Carolina and most mid-western states, Virginia has always been a minor hog producing state. In 1980 Virginia's total swine herd was 750,000 head. By 1997 that figure was down to 420,000 and the herd is no larger than this today. The decline in Virginia's swine herd has occurred statewide including southside, southeastern and Shenandoah Valley counties.

A combination of factors contributed to the exceptional growth of swine production in North Carolina. But one major factor was that between 1980 and 1992, an era when swine production was generally profitable, North Carolina state and local permits and regulations for confined swine feeding operations were minimal or non-existent. That all changed in 1992 when relatively stringent confined animal feeding regulations were passed by the North Carolina legislature. The state regulatory situation in Virginia during this same time was different. For operations of a minimum size that collected and land applied manure as a liquid, the Virginia State Water Control Board required that farms obtain and maintain a regulatory permit. Such permits were designed to prevent the discharge of manure or manure nutrients into state waters, a function that continues today.

A reasonable question of concern is could the type of extreme growth that occurred in North Carolina swine production be replicated in southside Virginia? Such a possibility seems unlikely with current economic conditions and Federal, State and Local regulatory policy. An equally reasonable question applies to the use of livestock ordinances. Should such ordinances be used to provide safeguards and controls in agricultural zones or should they be used to discourage certain forms of animal agriculture?

Current state regulations that apply. Within the discussion of establishing local livestock ordinances, it is useful to be aware of the state regulations that already apply to confined animal feeding operations. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requires livestock operations of a given size and type to be permitted and to follow legal requirements designated in the permit. Operations that utilize liquid manure handling systems and house over 750 hogs weighing 55 pounds or more, over 200 dairy cattle or over 300 slaughter or feeder cattle in confined feeding facilities are required by DEQ to apply for and maintain a permit.

This permit requires set construction specifications for manure storage structures (including minimum soil permeability allowance), soil monitoring tests at least every three years, annual manure nutrient tests and groundwater monitoring wells when earthen manure structures are constructed within 1 foot of the seasonal high water table. Additionally the permit specifies minimum buffer zones for manure application to cropland, requires a manure management training program for all operators, submission of plans for waste disposal in the event of farm closure and at least annual inspection by DEQ regulators. Operations must also maintain all testing and manure application records for at least five years.

The manure "Nutrient Management Plan." Another enforceable component of the Virginia's confined animal feeding permit is a nutrient management plan. These plans must be written or approved by specialists with the soil and water division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The purpose of the nutrient management plan is to manage the amount, timing and application of manure (or commercial fertilizer) as a source of plant nutrients to produce crops and prevent pollution. The plan specifies the quantity of manure application per acre based on soil and manure test results and the expected utilization of the manure by the crops being produced. In addition to balancing manure application rate with crop needs, the plan also specifies application rates and timing to avoid runoff from the field.

The state regulatory process is generally considered to be thorough in protection of environmental and water quality. Local livestock ordinances remain as a means to suitably direct placement of animal feeding operations in agricultural zones. The challenge is to balance the subjective notion of proper placement with the need of farmland owners to pursue animal agriculture when appropriate for their farm businesses.

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