The Environmental Impact
of Factory Farms
more on factory farms

For more information contact: Melissa K. Scanlan, Midwest Environmental Advocates, 608-251-5047.

Definition:  A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) or factory farm or large farming operation is defined by federal and state statute as a facility that contains 1,000 animal units.  The calculation of animal units varies by type of animal.  For dairy cattle, a facility that contains 700 milking and dry cows is considered a CAFO.

There are 55,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin.  Currently, 94 of them are factory farms.

Factory farms can only operate if they have a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit.  These farms are regulated under the Federal Clean Water Act and state water law because of their potential to negatively impact water resources.  The WPDES permit regulates where and how much waste can be spread on fields, how the waste is temporarily stored in lagoons, and the design of a permanent runoff control system.

These three activities are the only way the WDNR can eliminate the negative impacts of water pollution from these facilities because unlike a paper factory, which also requires a WPDES permit, there is no obvious discharge pipe.  This makes monitoring water pollution much more difficult, and underscores the importance of regulating the manure lagoons, spreading of waste, and runoff controls.  Wisconsin's Administrative Code, NR 423 read in conjunction with the federal Clean Water Act, requires the factory farm to submit a nutrient management plan, assessment of manure lagoons, and runoff controls as part of its application for a WPDES permit.

Agriculture is the number one source of water pollution in the United States: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agricultural practices in the U.S. have impaired 60% of our rivers and streams, 50% of our lakes, ponds and reservoirs and 34% of our estuaries (1).  Agriculture is the number one source of water pollution in the United States (2).

When waste is mishandled it harms waterways, human health and aquatic life.  The primary pollutants from these operations are nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, and heavy metals.  In 1996, the Center for Disease Control linked the high nitrate levels in Indiana well water near animal feedlots to spontaneous abortions in humans.  Studies of people living near swine factory farms have found higher numbers of respiratory problems and behavioral changes (3).   Further, at high levels, phosphorus is acutely toxic to fish, while at lower levels, phosphorus and nitrogen cause an excess of algae (a process called "eutrophication").  Additionally, pathogens (including fecal coliform and other forms of coliform bacteria) can migrate into drinking water and cause serious gastrointestinal illness.

Factory Farms and Poverty.  Factory Farms disrupt the local rural economy.  Small family farms create 10% more permanent jobs in the local economy, spend 20% more in local retail sales, and increase local per capita income 37% more than factory farms (4).  For instance, livestock operations grossing under $400,000 a year spend 79% of their business expenditures within a twenty-mile radius of the farm (5).

  1.   U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Draft Strategy for Addressing Environmental and Public Health Impacts from Animal Feeding Operations, March 1998.
  2.   U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1994 National Water Quality Inventory.
  3.   Kelly J. Donham, The University of Iowa, AOccupational Health Risks for Swine Producers:  Inferences for Public Health Risks of People Living in the Vicinity of Swine Production Units,@ in Manure Management in Harmony with the Environment and Society, hosted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, (February 10-12, 1998), pp.299-303.
  4.   See  Illinois Citizens for Responsible Practices Report.
  5.   See John Wade Chism. ALocal Spending Patterns for Farm Business in Southwest Minnesota.@  Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Minnesota, Department of Applied Economics (St. Paul Minnesota) (September 1993).

back to the Wisconsin Stewardship Network home page