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Special Report: Expansion of‘CAFO’ livestock farms causing division and concern across South Dakota

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The livestock industry in South Dakota — among the state’s largest economic engines — is undergoing a fundamental transformation that may alter farms, farmers and rural communities for generations to come.

Despite a rising wave of grassroots opposition, South Dakota is seeing a steady increase in the development of livestock operations known as CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, in which thousands and sometimes more than a million animals are bred, housed and fed in a confined space.

Supporters of CAFO development say the farms can boost the state’s agricultural economy and strengthen rural communities. Opponents say the farms are causing division among rural populations and will limit opportunities for non-agricultural development in small-town South Dakota.

The state has seen a nearly 15% rise in the number of CAFOs in operation over the past decade, and the pace of development has picked up recently, with 18 new CAFOs put into production over the past 18 months.

As of October 2019, there were 452 permitted CAFOs allowed to house about 9.6 million cows, hogs, turkeys and chickens in the state, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

When it comes to CAFO development, the stakes for South Dakota are high in terms of both risk and reward.

Supporters of the farms — including Gov. Kristi Noem — see strong opportunity for expansion of the livestock and related products market, which accounted for $4.5 billion in sales in 2017, about half of the state’s total agricultural economy.

A single hog-birthing facility recently approved for a rural site south of Miller in Hand County, for example, is expected to create 19 full-time jobs with an annual payroll of $1.3 million and produce another $1.3 million in annual feed purchases.

But each new large livestock operation brings environmental and odor concerns, and for some, emotional heartache and health problems.

Lyle Reimnitz, who lives a half-mile from a Davison County hog farm permitted for 8,000 sows, said the odors and gasses from the farm prevent him from living a normal life. He and his wife suffer from headaches and respiratory problems, they rarely sit outside or hang out laundry, and they have given up on their dream of having their daughter’s family move to the farm when her husband retires from the military.

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