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The changing world of raising livestock

"The changing world of animal agriculture" panel discussion was held at the Agweek Farm Show in Rochester, Minnesota, on Tuesday, March 9. It featured Dave Mensink, Shelly DePestel and Paul Brietzke.

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Minnesota has about 18,000 feedlots that need to be registered with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Agweek file photo

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Livestock producers are running their operations differently than they did a decade or two ago, and sustainability is now a goal for most of them.

What hasn't changed however is the impact that local livestock production has on rural communities.

Dave Mensink, past president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and hog farmer in Preston, Minnesota, said rural communities in southeast Minnesota realize the weight that livestock farms have on local economies.

An ethanol plant with a million bushel of corn running through it provides less than five jobs, said Mensink, with the jobs being highly automated. We need those ethanol plants, he said, but livestock operations contribute more in terms of labor.

"A million bushel of corn fed to hogs, that producers 33 jobs," he said. "So I mean it's a lot of labor in our hog industry, and that's reflected back in our communities — and not just the producers such as our family that own the pigs, but the contract growers too."

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Mensink, along with Shelly DePestel, Minnesota Milk Producers Association president, and Paul Brietzke of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, spoke Wednesday, March 9, at the Agweek Farm Show, on a panel discussion entitled "The changing world of animal agriculture." The panel was hosted by AgweekTV's Michelle Rook.

Four people sit on a stage. The second from left is holding a microphone.
AgweekTV's Michelle Rook, left, emceed a panel at the Agweek Farm Show on animal agriculture. On the panel were, from left, Dave Mensink, past president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, Shelly DePestel, Minnesota Milk Producers Association president, and Paul Brietzke of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Photo taken March 9, 2022, in Rochester, Minnesota.
Katie Pinke / Agweek

Livestock farmers are always contributing to local economies through repair and expansion costs to their operations, Mensink said.

"A livestock farmer is always spending something in order to fix a barn — so we're always in contact and doing business with electricians and local feed companies, and plumbers," he said. "Livestock is a very intricate part of our local communities."

DePestel is the president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. DePestel is also a dairy producer, working as a partner with Daley Farm of Lewiston where she farms with her four brothers, three sons, niece and nephew.

She said the local appreciation for dairy producers in southeast Minnesota is felt by her and her family. Like pork producers, dairy farmers rely on the network of area professionals to get the most out of their operation.

"I saw a lot of the people I do business with in the room next door," said DePestel of the Agweek Farm Show. "They're the vendors, they're the businesses in the small towns that we work with on a daily basis."

She said across the state in other small communities that have a significant livestock presence, "rural businesses and Main Streets are full"

Shift towards sustainability

Mensink said he expects in the future for there to be stamps on pork packaging that confirms the product was raised in a sustainable way. He said the National Pork Board hired a separate company to do their sustainability study, and producers have submitted detailed farm information into that.

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"How many gallons of water per site, how many kilowatts of electricity per site, and how many gallons of manure — and how many acres do you apply it on?" he said. "What we're trying to do is accumulate this data and the end result here, would be to demonstrate to that consumer that we are sustainable."

Mensink said he hopes to avoid new regulations when it comes to sustainability.

"Maybe we just have to prove to that consumer that we're doing the right thing as we raise our product," he said.

DePestel said when it comes to sustainability, the dairy industry in southeast Minnesota is keeping up with the times.

"Dairy has the possibility of going net zero or below zero carbon footprint," she said.

Within the next two or three decades, DePestel said she expects sustainability regulations handed down by the state to be applied to dairy operations.

"I look at that as opportunities to do the right thing for the environment. The right thing for the animals, the right thing for the land and the water," said DePestel. "Sustainability is something that's not going to go away. It's something that we can contribute to, and so I think that is valuable."

Paul Brietzke has worked with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for 14 years. He's based out of the Rochester regional office where he is the nutrient manure management lead.

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From the perspective of a regulatory agency, Brietzke said the MPCA hears constantly from consumers and community members, whether it be positively and negatively about the industry.

"Now the understanding of ag from personal experience over the years, I think we'd all agree, and this is outside the realm of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is that the general public has a very limited understanding of agriculture," he said.

For producers, regulatory organizations like state pollution control agencies should be used as collaborators to meet requirements for expanding or changing operations.

"We really want to try to communicate that to ag, that if you guys talk with us, we'll work with you. It's a two-way street," he said.

The step after that, said Brietzke, is to consult neighbors.

"I don't know how many times over the years that I've found that a surprised neighbor can be somewhat of a disappointed neighbor," he said. "But if a farmer goes up to him right up front and explains what they're thinking of doing, a lot of times that concern that they might have can be alleviated."

Regulations to come

When it comes to regulations, Brietzke said the majority of them have "been on the books for quite some time." He said the majority of animal agriculture that he's monitored in his career with the agency is aware of all the necessary requirements.

"You can tell right away where the management level is of an individual farmer," he said. "And the majority of farms I have the opportunity to go on are very well managed."

But he's a double edged sword, is what he tells farmers who've never dealt with him or a regulatory agency before.

"If you're not meeting our requirements, I do have regulatory authority," said Brietzke. "But if you do meet our requirements, and I get a complaint — which we get, we get them from neighbors and from whomever — I will investigate it."

Again, he said the majority of those cases end up in the operation in compliance with all the requirements.

"I'll call that complainant back and explain to them, these are our requirements and the farmers are meeting them," he said. "They have every right to farm and do what they're doing."

As far as future regulations regarding sustainability marks, Brietzke said he has no idea what's in store. He hopes to be retired before there's any major upgrade on a regulation, he said with a sigh.

"Because it's a big public process, and it turns into a huge food fight," said Brietzke. "You have the industry, and they understand what we require, and they look at whatever issue they're concerned about and rightfully bring those concerns to us."

But producers are not the only people who come to that table, he said, there's also environmentalists, and local units of government.

"So we get quite a selection, and advocates that come to us explaining their position," he said. "And everybody wants something — like usual — and so sometimes we feel like we're doing an OK job because we disappoint the majority of the people, environmentalists and the ag industry."

"We found the middle of the road to bug everybody," he said.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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