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Home > Healthy Great Lakes, Healthy Michigan > Frequently Asked CAFO Questions

Frequently Asked CAFO Questions

CAFO Waste & Spreading

Is it illegal to spread CAFO manure on the ground?
No, it is not illegal to spread CAFO manure waste on the ground.  While this website describes many different situations in which a CAFO may be spreading their waste on land, and many possibly harmful effects of that activity, it is not of itself illegal.  It is illegal if a CAFO spreads waste in such a manner that it moves off the land and into waters of the state, and this "discharge" causes or contributes to a violation of Michigan's water quality standards in waters of the state. 

What is in CAFO manure?
CAFO manure contains the animals' feces and urine, plus, the definition also includes other materials such as bedding, compost, and other raw materials.  CAFO manure is also loaded with the plant nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause algae blooms if released to surface water, and pathogens such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), and other fecal coliforms

Manure may also contain:
  • growth hormones used to increase the production of milk in the cows
  • antibiotics that keep the animals from getting ill
  • chemicals used to clean the milkhouse equipment or used as additives to lagoons
  • milkhouse wastes discharged on the floor while milking
  • birthing fluids from cows calving
  • blood from birthing
  • silage leachate from the chopped corn in bunkers
  • production area waste from the equipment being washed or used
  • contaminated stormwater stormwater is considered clean unless it's allowed to come into contact with manure
  • copper sulfate used in the footbaths for cows before they are led into the milking parlor.

There are 168 chemicals in and around manure according to a 2001 USEPA Report (Appendix A, page 235-244).


Can a methane digester solve the CAFO's waste problem?
Not really. This is like capturing a fart in a jar. It may help reduce some odors, but it has severe limits.

Methane digesters do not:

  • reduce nitrogen or phosphorus (in most schemes)
  • reduce liquid in the manure
  • improve the waste as a fertilizer (it is still distributed on fields).
  • save taxpayers money.

Can composting the manure solve the CAFO's waste problem?
In short, no. And, as you read the bulleted list below, remember that a Michigan CAFO can have a compost pile within 200 feet of its neighbor.
  • In addition to manure and other materials, CAFO compost piles may have up to 20,000 pounds of dead animals in one pile (and if just one animal had mad cow disease and this pile is spread on the land, the prions could enter the food or milk supply).  For more information on prions, see the Center for Disease Control Prion Diseases webpage.
  • CAFO compost piles draw vermin, rats, flies, coyotes, and vultures.
  • Most CAFO compost sites do not have runoff containment structures, and the nutrient-rich liquids can cause algae blooms if they reach surface waters.
  • the odors emitted can become very strong if the composting is not done correctly.

What is a CAFO discharge?
Discharge means any direct or indirect release of any waste, waste effluent, wastewater, pollutant, or any combination thereof into any of the waters of the state or upon the groundView the Part 21 DEQ Wastewater Discharge Permit Rules, 67KB pdf. 

  • A CAFO discharge may be called many things: a spill, accident, terrorist attack, or blamed on birds, cherry trees, deer, horses, geese, raccoons, or the neighbors. But rarely is it called what it is: a mess from the CAFO with 3,500 cows.
  • A CAFO discharge can be brown and smell like animal waste; it can be white and smell like bad milk; it can be green and sour which may be leachate from the silage (chopped corn that they feed to cows).
  • A CAFO discharge may also be diluted with stormwater. In this case, the CAFO saying is "dilution is the solution to pollution."

Are CAFO operators allowed to spread animal waste on snow?Truck spraying manure filth on snow, Lenawee County.
The real answer should be "no, not under any circumstance."

Instead the answer to this question is "maybe". How would you find out?
Whether or not a CAFO is allowed to spread waste on snow depends either on what is in their Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, or on whether the CAFO has an order from the state with specifics for winter application. This may be determined on a field by field basis. Many CAFOs will spread waste on snow just to get rid of it and then hope they don't get caught. The problem is that when the snow melts, the manure will run off into the nearest ditch or stream, because frozen ground cannot absorb water.  Often the manure on the snow will even cause the snow and ice to melt.  If you observe CAFO operators spreading waste on snow or frozen ground, and you know their CNMP and NPDES permit doesn't allow them to, you should contact the MDEQ district office, or call the Pollution Emergency Alert System (PEAS).


Are CAFO Operators allowed to dump manure in piles on fields?
This is a grey-area question. By dumping manure piles, a CAFO creates an off-site production area of waste. This off-site production area cannot discharge to waters of the state.  See page 6 of the Part 21 DEQ Wastewater Discharge Permit Rules for the official definition of "production area".  
  • How long can manure be piled at a site? The Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan may contain information on this practice.
  • A manure pile can cause fly outbreaks, and invite coyotes, vultures, and rats if dead animals are in these piles.
  • If the piles are placed near homes, the emissions may cause illness to residents.

Are CAFO Operators allowed to spread waste before precipitation or rainfall?Tractor spreading manure before rain, on slope.
This can also be a cloudy area. If you go the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality CAFO website, scroll down to download the 2-page PDF Instructions for Determining Precipitation Forecasts to see how weather forecasts are applicable to CAFOs.  You may use the instructions along with the CAFO's CNMP to determine if they are spreading waste in violation of their NPDES permit.

The photo at right, taken in Lenawee County just before a predicted rainfall, shows manure waste application on a fairly steep slope. 


Is there a time of year when CAFOs can't spread wastes?
Not necessarily, this may be different for each CAFO.  Each CAFO's NPDES permit guides what can and cannot be done. 

Are there fields CAFOs can never spread waste on?
Yes. Soil testing for phosphorus must be done for fields that will be used for land application of CAFO wastes.  If the soil tests indicate high amounts of phosphorus, a CAFO cannot apply waste to that field.  That information is included in the Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan.

How far away does the CAFO waste have to stay from water, lake, wetland, and so on?
This refers to a "setback", and the required setback information would be found in the CAFO's NPDES permit.

Is it legal for CAFO operators to spill the waste in the road?
No. However, you would need to contact your local road commission or police department to file a complaint on this issue. Unless the spill gets into waters of the state, or is an extreme amount, it is necessary to contact the government agency that has jurisdiction over roads.


CAFOs' Impacts on Humans

Do I need to worry about a CAFO going in near my house?
Yes. You need to organize and educate your neighbors as soon as possible. See How to Stop Approval of a New CAFO.

What will happen to my property values with a CAFO nearby?
Property values will drop the closer in proximity to a CAFO that you live. Information can be found in the Real Estate Appraisal Journal 

How does the CAFO waste end up on my property?
CAFO waste can be sprayed, irrigated, blown by the wind, spread further through surface ponding of rainfall, or from runoff that may reach your property.  High powered fans used to cool the hundreds of animals in the buildings often blow out bedding or other contaminated materials. 

Are there human health effects from exposure to CAFO manure?

Yes. Many people have become ill living near and working at CAFOs. Some people develop breathing problems, coughs, headaches, hydrogen sulfide poisoning, and ammonia poisoning.  Here are two articles from Environmental Health Perspectives: Health Effects of Airborne Exposures from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and The Potential Role of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in Infectious Disease Epidemics and Antibiotic Resistance. 


What do I do when they are spreading CAFO waste next to my house?
First, this activity may not be illegal.  But there are provisions the land applicator must follow to protect your home and property.  So first, to be safe - get your children indoors, close your windows, and take down your laundry. Then start documenting your observations, in case the activity is causing a problem.
  • Take time-stamped pictures of the field where waste is being spread;
  • Take time-stamped pictures of the application equipment;
  • Get the weather forecast or report from the National Weather Service and save the report on your computer, or print it.  See the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality CAFO website, and scroll down to download the 2-page PDF Instructions for Determining Precipitation Forecasts to see how weather forecasts apply to timing of CAFO activities.  You may use the instructions along with the CAFO's CNMP to determine if they are spreading waste in violation of their NPDES permit.
  • Get your notebook, note the date and time and all your observations:  if the CAFO is spreading waste over any field tiles, next to county drains, next to any open waterways, near a tile riser, over a catch basin, near a dike, or near your water well.  Draw sketches, indicate which way is north, roads, buildings, homes. 
Additionally, document:
  • how far the application is from your property;
  • if you or your family are feeling ill, which may indicate emissions of a toxic gas. (An odor will not make you ill. An emission will give you a headache, nausea, burning sinuses, sore throat.)
  • if you smell odor, and what it smells like (for example, it could smell like manure, or like soured milk, or even like diesel fuel.)

How do I document the activities I observe about the CAFO?
In a nutshell, you will take pictures, take water samples, and even smell the water at your own risk (smell it for manure or some other wrong smell.) Carry a notebook and keep information, such as a journal or a checklist. Have someone else verify your information, if at all possible.

Can I take photographs of a CAFO?
Yes. Pictures ideally should show the time, date, and location of what is happening. This is especially important if rainfall is predicted and a facility is land-applying waste anyway, perhaps even in violation of its NPDES permit or consent order. (see  MDEQ's CAFO website for more information on this situation.)

Without trespassing onto private property, and only working from the road-right-of-way, or from the property of a landowner who gave you permission, take photos of:

  • operations to document their practices. These may show illegal practices such as pumping into a waterway or county drain or into a catch basin.
  • buildings to show number of buildings and location. Pictures here may also show dead animals.
  • activities to show land application of waste, types of hauling equipment. Document digging or tiling activities, too.
  • people only if they are harassingor stalking you, such as following you in your vehicle or blocking your path. If someone is harrassing you, you should also call the police or 911.  Photos of people may also be taken if they are doing something you believe is illegal that would be a violation of the CAFO's NPDES water discharge permit or consent order, if the CAFO has one. 

How can I protect myself while monitoring?
  • Notify the police or local sherrift that you and a companion will be monitoring water near CAFOs, as explained below.
  • Bring someone with you if at all possible.
  • Calibrate any equipment ahead of time to save time while at the monitoring location.
  • Make sure all your equipment is turned on ahead of time and ready to be used.
  • Employ the two-minute rule: try to do everything you need to do as fast, but as accurately, as possible. This includes using the  dissolved oxygen (DO) meter to measure  DO and water temperature, grabbing a water sample, using a meter to measure the pH, using the ammonia strips, taking pictures, and so on.
Send notice to the local sheriff or state police of:  which CAFOs you will be monitoring and where, what type and color of vehicle you'll be in, plus the license plate number.  Tell them your and other monitors' names, addresses, and phone numbers, and cell phone numbers. Tell them clearly what you are doing and let them know you are monitoring the water or air.  This way, if someone complains about your activities, the police will know where to find you, and can call you. 

You must never trespass. Check for road right-of-way distances. Realize that state highways are different than local roads. A CAFO operator may file charges against you if you are trespassing on their property.  If you plan to access a stream away from the road, you must get permission from the landowner. 


What should I do if I see:
  • a broken lagoon or waste storage pit
  • waste running out of a pipe, a tube, a truck, an irrigator
  • ponding or pooling of waste on fields
  • dead animals
  • syringes and other related equipment dumped
  • digging, tiling or dumping at night
  • earth-moving equipment at work
If you see any of these practices or waste products at a CAFO, you should document it with photos that record the time and date. If you believe a violation has occurred, contact the appropriate agency with your concerns.


Can the CAFO go after me if I report them?

Yes. A CAFO can go after you if you report them. Some agencies take anonymous tips, and you can report them that way. Remember that documentation is extremely important, so be diligent in your investigation before you report a violation.  Always document your investigation, and always be credible.


Water Quality Issues

My well water tastes funny? Can I get my well water tested?
If your well water tastes or smells funny, do not drink your water until you have it tested. When testing, document the test and take pictures.

You can test your well yourself. In Michigan, your local health department may furnish free bottles with an instruction sheet and where to send the sample. It costs between $14.00 and $16.00 for to have samples tested. The instruction sheet explains the sampling protocol. Other states likely have similar services.



Why is my lake green? White? Black? Brown?  Lime Lake is green in spring after being subject to discharges all winter of 2004.
While there may be other reasons that water can turn different colors, CAFOs are often the culprit if they are located either upstream or up the hill from a lake or stream.

  • A green lake may be a sign of a silage leachate discharge that has caused an algae bloom.  The photo at right shows an example, at Lime Lake near Hudson, Michigan.
  • A white color may be from milk or milkhouse waste being discharged into water.
  • Black water may be a sign of a direct discharge of animal waste into the water.
  • Brown water may be diluted animal waste in the water.

Is the wetland on my property dead because of CAFO waste?
Water testing is needed to verify if there is waste in the wetland.  Though water quality standards are slightly different, E. coli and other fecal coliforms may still signal the presence of fecal material in the wetland. 


Is it safe to touch the water? No. Never assume that water is safe near a CAFO or a land application site. Always wear clean rubber gloves. If bloodworms are present in the water, this can be an indicator that you may get hepatitis if you are not wearing gloves. You could also get cryptosporidium, giardia, pfisteria, or other illnesses from the fecal matter in the water. If you have an open cut anywhere, you may want to have your companion take any water samples.


What do I do if I fall in the water?
Depending where and how you fall in, clean up as soon as possible.
  • Wash as much off before you get into your vehicle.
  • Go directly to where you can shower.
  • Monitor your health.
  • If you become ill or were totally submerged, contact your physician.
  • If you become ill immediately, go to the emergency room.

Is a roadside ditch considered part of the surface water?
You would have to contact the proper agency to make this determination. If the roadside ditch connects to waters of the state it may be considered surface water, open drain, or county drain.


What do I do if you see dead fish downstream from the CAFO?
Document the dead fish by taking pictures; count how many and what kind if you can identify them. If there is a large number of dead fish, such as any number above 8 or 10, contact the agency in charge in your state. In Michigan this would be the Department of Natural Resources.   You should also notify the MDEQ.


CAFO Basics

How many locations/facilities make up a CAFO?
One facility can be a CAFO. Two or more AFOs under common ownership are considered to be a single AFO for the purposes of determining the number of animals at an operation, if the AFOs adjoin each other, or if they use a common area or system for the disposal of wastes.

In Michigan, satellite barns and satellite lagoons would also be considered as part of a single AFO if they meet the definition under the Part 21 Rules of DEQ Wastewater Discharge Permits.


Where do CAFOs keep their animals?
All the animals are kept inside large cramped barns, they are not allowed outside to graze.

Where does CAFO waste come from?
The animals within the CAFO produce the majority of the waste. One 1400-pound cow produces approximately 17.7 gallons of feces and urine daily. CAFO waste can also come from the production areas, such as lagoons or other waste storage structures, silage bunkers, the milkhouse, contaminated stormwater, manure piles, and compost. See What pollutants do CAFOs produce? and What's in CAFO waste?


What kinds of animal wastes or CAFO wastes are there?
There are many different contaminants and materials in CAFO wastes. Milkhouse waste, silage leachate, blood from birthing, antibiotics, chemicals, are just some of the animal wastes. See What pollutants do CAFOs produce? and What's in CAFO waste?


What typically grows in the fields near CAFOs?
Alfalfa, soybeans, corn, wheat, rye, vegetables.


What types of water pollution can come from CAFOs, and what health problems can arise?
Surface and groundwater pollution can come from CAFOs. Groundwater contamination can cause E. coli poisoning and blue baby syndrome. Surface water contamination can cause illness from cryptosporidium, giardia, and pfisteria. See How do CAFOs pollute water?


What kind of air pollution can come from CAFOs, and what health problems can arise?
There are over 168 chemicals in and around manure. Some of the main gases are methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. You may have trouble breathing when the CAFO operators are spraying the fields with waste. If you feel ill from waste application, notify your local health department or physician immediately. See How do CAFOs pollute air?


CAFO Regulations & Government Subsidies

What is a CAFO permit and where do I find it?
Michigan CAFOs are required to have only one permit.  It is a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES permit, given to authorize discharges to waters of the state only under particular circumstances.  By signing the permit application, a CAFO owner shows good intentions to do the right thing. But the permit is only as good as the management at the CAFO. Permits do not guarantee compliance with the law. They do not protect public health. Remember, from a CAFO's point of view, it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission!

You can find NPDES permits at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation website.  Be sure to see How to apply for a NPDES permit.  You can also see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency NPDES webpage, note the upper left corner of that home page references the federal Final 2008 CAFO Rule.

There are two categories of NPDES permits for CAFOs.  Some CAFOs are required to apply for an Individual NPDES Permit, that is written specifically for that one particular CAFO.  Others are allowed to apply for a Certificate of Coverage (COC) to be covered under the CAFO General Permit, where the terms of the permit are applied to all the CAFOs with COCs.  The General Permit language assumes all the CAFOs covered are alike, so they all have the same requirements.   See the MDEQ CAFO website for more information. 


Do CAFOs get money or subsidies from the government?
Most CAFOs receive subsidies in some form. Milk subsidies, road grants through local or state economic development agencies, EQIP,  rural development grants, renewable energy grants, bonds, crop subsidies, etc.

The agriculture department says they follow generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPS) and the "MOU". What is this?
See GAAMPS The Michigan Right to Farm Act, P.A. 93, was enacted in 1981 to provide farmers with protection from nuisance lawsuits. This state statute authorizes the Michigan Commission of Agriculture to develop and adopt Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs) for farms and farm operations in Michigan. These voluntary practices are based on available technology and scientific research to promote sound environmental stewardship and help maintain a farmer's right to farm.


See MOU. This refers to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, entered into for the purpose of delineating the respective roles and responsibilities regarding state agency response actions to environmental and nuisance complaints about farm operations.


Get Help

What organizations can help you find information about CAFOs?
There are many organizations that can help.

Sierra Club
Waterkeeper Alliance
Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM)
Society for Responsible Agriculture
U.S. EPA (Visit state agencies for your state)

Also visit CAFO Help Contact Info for more information.




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