House bill reveals issues with poultry litter plans

The system falls short as environmental rules ask for more farm details

A poultry feeding operation in eastern Oklahoma. (KJBOutdoors photo)

For the CCOF

Oklahoma’s poultry litter production and fertilizer management plans have a problem. 

As large-scale poultry houses multiplied the past five years, regulatory agencies saw cutbacks, and federal environmental rules changed.

Farms are required to operate under an approved “nutrient management plan” that dictates how they handle waste and distribute chicken litter, which is a valuable and rich fertilizer. It is high in phosphorus and is identified as a major “non-point source” pollution factor for Oklahoma’s waters.

However, state officials indicate there is a backlog in the plans and a state representative says new federal rules make the new plans too expensive for farmers.

Now, legislative debate awaits in the state Senate over HB 2983, a bill by Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell. It would ask taxpayers for a one-time $330,000 boost to get things on a better track. 

But conservation groups are eyeing the plan and its November effective date with doubt.

The history of the issue is complicated by agency acronyms and a set of federal rules linked to state statutes. The bill would appear to offer a simple solution. It would sever federal rules from state law, ask taxpayers for a one-time cash infusion to make some fixes and updates, and ask the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to adopt emergency regulations while it drafts a new rulebook.

“I don’t want to say we don’t trust the Department of Agriculture,” said Save the Illinois River founder Ed Brocksmith. “I have to say our confidence in the agriculture department, based on the rampage of permits they issued for large poultry operations in eastern Oklahoma, has been greatly damaged.”

Currently, state statute simply directs the ag department and poultry industry to follow the federal NRCS Code 590 Standard, a national guideline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

The 590 Standard connection

Oklahoma is one of only a few states that directly links state law to the 590 standard.

Trey Lam, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, the state entity that administers NRCS programs, emphasized that the agency is not a regulatory arm. It exists to assist farmers with best practices and only sets conditions on farms to meet certain rules if they are using NRCS funded assistance programs.

The federal 590 standards are updated nationally every five years by law, he said. Because the state statute directs the ag department to use that standard, the agency has to make adjustments with each new version.

Hardin, in his committee and House floor talks, said the latest update makes plans too expensive to produce and the newly required on-site inspections raise disease and liability issues with strangers entering poultry farms.

“The major change was the person writing the plan has to go to that property and evaluate the grades and slopes and take the soil samples,” Hardin said. “With the old plan the charge was $600 if you were exporting litter and if you were doing the application on your land it was $1,200, now it’s $5,000 to $6,000.”

A deeper look into the issues shows complications that go beyond the rule change, that plan writers always have been expected to visit the farms, and that plans written by independent writers are a relatively new development due to government cutbacks.

Rep. Hardin did not return messages or an email request for more information. The issue is close to his family. His wife, Lorri, wrote nutrient management plans for a time but is no longer involved.

How the 590 standard changed

Caleb Stone, state agronomist with the NRCS, was one of the people who adapted the new federal standard for use in Oklahoma.

The rules are national so some portions might not be applicable in every region, he said. States adapt their rules to fit within the broader framework.

In Oklahoma, a farm’s nutrient plan might be written under three scenarios; an independent writer creates one as mandated by state statute; the NRCS writes one for them as part of a federal funding assistance program; or it is written for the farm by the Ag department because it is located in portions of Delaware and Mayes counties within the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed, which is covered by a 2003 federal lawsuit settlement with the City of Tulsa.

The amount and chemical makeup of an operation’s waste, soil nutrient make-up and condition, vegetation, and geography all are factors that govern when and how the litter may be stored or applied on fields to benefit the farm but not harm the environment. State rules say the plans must be updated every six years, but annual updates are filed for changes.

“Poultry waste is not allowed to enter the scenic rivers of Oklahoma, but it obviously is,” Brocksmith said. “All you have to do is look at the amount of phosphorous coming into the Illinois River and past Tahlequah and into Tenkiller Lake. It’s hundreds of tons a year, mostly from non-point sources, and mostly from chicken waste,” he said.

Stone said the new code is simplified where water quality guidelines are concerned.

“Not that much changed really,” he said. “We simplified the tables.”

The old rules recognized some watersheds categorized as “nutrient-limited” due to sensitive environmental conditions, but that meant some landowners might have different rules applied on one side of a hill versus the other, he said.

“It was complicated, and why split hairs?” Stone said. “We from NRCS worked with ODAFF and OSU to create one rate table for the whole state, instead of two, and we simplified the table.”

The new plans do require plan writers to visit the properties and may require a few more observations, as Hardin said, but plan writers always visit farms, he said.

“They have always been required to assess things like erosion risk,” Stone said. “We’ve always told all our planners to visit the farms.”

A hodgepodge history

Few are as intimate with Oklahoma’s poultry nutrient management plans as Sheri Herron. A soil scientist who once worked with the NRCS, she advised on the creation of the plans used for the Eucha-Spavinaw lawsuit properties, and at one point trained Hardin’s wife, among others. She is currently executive director of BMPs Inc., a non-profit in Farmington, Ark.

She speaks in terms of “my farmers” and said she is dedicated to helping them and fertilizer applicator companies get through what can be complicated regulatory hoops as best she can. If an eastern Oklahoma farm is getting a plan written, odds are someone out of her office is writing it, she said.

NRCS and county Conservation District offices wrote plans and the state ag department helped with plans through about 2016 or 2017, she said.

The cost of having a firm write a plan is a big hit for individual operators so many of the integrators – poultry companies – are currently covering that cost, she said.

“Independent contractors have been creating nutrient management plans for the past five years after ODAFF cut staff due to lack of funding,” she said.

She said the new 590 standard has indeed complicated poultry litter use for both poultry producers and crop farmers who apply litter to their crops and pastures.

Plan writers have to assess conditions on individual fields for anyone wanting to utilize litter as fertilizer, and the new 590 is far more restrictive than the previous version, she said.

“The rules are especially disadvantageous for hundreds of Oklahoma’s crop farmers, who annually rely on litter that is exported off of poultry farms,” she said.

Herron said BMPs is able to fit in nutrient plans as part of other work they do. It would be difficult for an independent company to form solely to create and update poultry plans and charge enough to support full-time work, she said.

“We’re set up to write them and can spit them out pretty fast,” she said. “It’s not highly lucrative, which is why there isn’t a lot of competition for the work.”

The new plan

Director Lam said Hardin’s bill would have the Conservation Commission work with an initial cash infusion to hire and train three new full-time people to “clean up a backlog.”

It also includes funding for technical work to create a modern online system to replace volumes of paperwork. It would simplify the annual update process for operators, and simplify reporting of fertilizer applications with GPS coordinates rather than township and range, he said.

The Conservation Commission, Ag department, and Oklahoma State University would work together to create new standards, to train the new staff members, and to create educational materials for producers, he said.

Regulations created by ODAFF likely would contain rules similar to older NRCS rules and borrow from surrounding states, he said. The program should include fees so the Conservation Service workers would continue to create them as part of a self-sustaining program, he said.

Herron said the state of Arkansas never tied its plans directly to the NRCS 590 Standard. However, the creation of that state’s nutrient management plan laws was not easy or fast, she said.

“A lot of time was committed to the creation of the laws and the content of the plans, especially the phosphorus index that largely determines how much litter can be spread on a field.  It took years and a lot of public meetings and stakeholder involvement,” she said.

“If the bill passes and Oklahoma chooses to create their own nutrient management laws and plans, their process could benefit from the extensive efforts of other states,” she said.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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