Many of you may have heard the term – CAFO – which stands for “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.” Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? CAFO is a term associated with larger farms that is often wrongly exchanged with the term “factory farm”. In all actuality, CAFO is a federal program that requires all farms with a certain number of animals to abide by a strict set of rules and regulations. For dairy farmers like me, the magic number to be considered a CAFO is 300 cows; and since we have 600 cows on my farm, that makes us a CAFO. CAFOs can be any type of animal operation – hog farms, poultry farms, cattle ranches, horse farms, and even organic farms.
Why does such a program exist? Well, we know that what goes in, must come out, and in the case of our cows, that means they eat – and they poop! Well, government wants to regulate the latter and wants us farmers to have a plan for the nutrients in manure in order to better protect the environment. Remember: Manure is a very valuable commodity on a farm, and we use it as fertilizer to help our crops grow. So CAFOs are not a bad idea.
In New York, the State Department of Environmental Conservation is the agency that oversees CAFOs, and in doing so they require us to track and document where, how much and how often we spread manure on our fields. We must contain and account for all manure that is produced on our farm, or else we will be fined. This is one reason why all of our cows are not able to go out on pasture – the fields would be too muddy with too much manure, per CAFO regulations. (By the way, we do allow our heifers and some of mature cows on pasture during certain times of the year, again, per our CAFO permit.)
As a CAFO, our family farm is inspected annually to ensure compliance with regulations and to make sure we are not tainting the land or nearby water supplies. While adhering to all the CAFO regulations can be cumbersome by requiring costly permits and improvements and time-consuming record-keeping, they are also in line with core beliefs as farmers – to always do right by the land.
The land we farm today is the same land our grandfather and great grandfather farmed decades ago, and the land I hope my children and grandchildren will farm in the future. We not only conduct our business on this land by growing crops for our animals, but we also live and play here. Our land provides us a lifestyle that consists of hunting and hiking, swimming in the pond, fishing in the river, snowmobiling, watching wildlife and just enjoying the natural beauty of living around open space in the middle of nowhere. This land is the foundation of our life – both personally and professionally – and whether we are regulated as a CAFO or not, it has always been in our best interest to respect it and take care of it to the best of our ability. That is the ultimate commitment of any farmer. And we are no different.