Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is both a legal term and a epithet. The federal and state governments have a strict definition of a CAFO and specific licensing, inspection, and oversight regulations for any farm so designated. Environmental and activist groups use the term to vilify any operation they don’t like. The former is used to provide producers with a set of guidelines in which they can operate safe from government prosecution. The latter is a label used to harass, demean, and arouse public position against a livestock or dairy farm. But technology may soon turn the tables and make the designation of a CAFO as something to be desired.
Livestock farms produce manure — that is a fact of life. Farms above a certain size are required to manage that manure in specific, prescribed ways. Unlike factories and municipal water treatment plants, CAFOs are required by law to be zero discharge facilities. This means the manure cannot leave that facility except in environmentally safe ways. Traditionally, this has been as fertilizer that is spread on cropland under strict environmental regulations. But developing technology may soon have that manure leaving the farm as energy. Digester technology is being used at several locations in Indiana to turn animal waste into power. The process produces a biogas consisting of methane, carbon dioxide, and traces of other “contaminant” gases. This biogas can be used directly as fuel in combined heat and power gas engines or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane. Operations large and small across the country are experimenting with this technology, and the USDA has provided funding to launch several pilot projects on CAFOs around the country. In the not too distant future, CAFOs may not only be producers of food, but also producers of renewable energy that may help power local communities with low cost, renewable energy.
Odor is another issue that besets livestock operations and often causes public opinion to be less than favorable toward CAFOs. Here, too, technology may be providing some answers. Research on filters for ventilation and even changes in diets have shown promising results. Products are now on the market that can greatly reduce or even eliminate odors from livestock operations. This, along with the biosecurity now being implemented on most livestock farms, may mean that CAFOs of the future will not store and transport large amounts of manure or even smell. In addition, they may be local energy producers, helping to keep down local electric rates.
This may not stop all the criticism of CAFOs, as many activist groups make too much money from criticizing agriculture to give it up. Some local activists have made a career and quite a name for themselves by their high profile protests against CAFOs. Yet, as this technology evolves and CAFOs change, the public may see more positives than negatives to having a thriving livestock sector in their county. Perhaps CAFO will one day cease to be an epithet and will instead be cool.
By Gary Truitt