LEWISTON, Minn. — About five years ago, Parker Byington and his family bought a dairy farm just south of Lewiston, moved from Washington state and started milking cows.

Today, Byington is planning to leave Winona County and milk cows elsewhere. The reason: Winona County's cap of 1,500 animal units per feedlot, or roughly 1,071 dairy cows.

"That’s driving business out of this county," he said.

After moving to Winona County in 2016, Byington said he's stood by and watched as the county's Board of Adjustments and Board of Commissioners have worked with environmental groups to stop the expansion of the Daley Farm dairy located a few miles away. That project has seen its day in court on more than one occasion.

In fact, Byington approached the county with plans to expand to up to 998 animal units on his own farm, which would have expanded his own milking herd from 600 heifers — he also has a separate feedlot site with 50 dry cows — to about 712 cows, but local opposition to his plan gave him second thoughts.

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And if he wanted to grow beyond that size in the future, Byington said the economics for dealing with the regulations from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would mean needing to expand to a minimum of 2,000 cows, but a more likely target of 2,500. That, he said, is a number well beyond the county's seemingly impenetrable animal unit cap.

"We wanted to raise our kids on the dairy farm," Byington said. "We take a lot of pride in taking care of our cows."

Now, those kids and any cows he raises will be done outside Winona County.

Perfect place for dairy

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said that with its rolling hills, and ample space for growing hay and alfalfa, Winona County is perfect for dairy farming. However, the county's animal unit cap is driving business elsewhere.

"It's important we don’t pit one county against another or one state against another," Paap said. "But it's real apparent that's what's happening from across the state looking at Winona County.

Paap said dairy farms add value to the farms in the neighborhood, and add value to the communities where they do business.

Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward said she's long asked for a review of the county's animal unit cap, but other commissioners have never voted to let that happen.

Marcia Ward
Marcia Ward

The problem, she said, is the number that is the limit, 1,500 animal units, wasn't selected because it made sense from a business or environmental perspective. That number was a compromise between the low number suggested by Land Stewardship Project and environmentalists and a larger number suggested by those in the agricultural community.

"There was no scientific analysis as to why," Ward said. "Nothing about how many acres there were for manure or how much water a feedlot needs. In my opinion, we need to review it, and we need to use modern agricultural practices. "

Winona County's loss

While Byington plans to take his herd with him when he moves, another dairy farmer will buy his operation. Mitch Thompson, who milks about 300 cows just up the road, said he plans to buy Byington's farm so he can have two feedlots and expand within the rules of Winona County. Though initially, he'll not milk as many cows at Byington's farm, so there will be a net loss of about 300 dairy cows in Winona County.

According to the most recent Comprehensive Review of Iowa’s Dairy Industry, each dairy cow is worth about $25,000 in economic activity, meaning those 300 cows leaving Winona County will cost $7.5 million to the county's economy.

Of course, the animal unit cap doesn't just apply to dairy cows. Hogs, turkeys, chickens and beef cows all have their own animal unit equivalence.

For Lewiston's Chris Sauer, that animal unit cap, in places since 1998, has already pushed him take his business elsewhere.

One of his agriculture business enterprises is hog farming. In 2005, Sauer decided when he wanted to expand his hog operations in Illinois and other areas of Southeast Minnesota. In fact, he said, he purchased a new site in Olmsted County on Monday where he plans to increase his hog business.

"Winona County is not friendly to livestock agriculture," Sauer said. "Olmsted County has been far more friendly."

Sauer was part of the committee that set the animal unit cap. He agreed with Ward that there is "no science behind it."

"The production ag side wanted 3,000 (AUs), and the special interests wanted 300," he said. "We compromised at 1,500."

Sauer said if the special interests had won out and set a feedlot cap at 300 AU, there would be no one left raising animals in Winona County.

"We've tried to bring it back to the commissioners, but they won’t even look at it," he said.

The county board's refusal, he said, is not reasonable. "How many businesses are locked into the same way they worked in 1998? The economics have changed since then."