Animal Feeding Operations – An Overview


Animal feeding operations (AFO) are agricultural businesses and operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. Animals found in these operations are used to produce dairy products, to lay eggs or to be slaughtered. Within these operations, feed is brought the animals, rather than the animals relying on grazing on farmland. This type of agricultural operation operates on a small area of land to perform its functions. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that there are approximately 450,000 AFOs within the United States.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, animal products account for more than fifty percent of the value of U.S. agricultural products, exceeding $120 billion per year.  The animals and animal products produced in AFOs are a significant component of this $120 billion equation.

A number of legal, economic, and policy issues derive from the operation of AFOs.  Issue areas include finance and credit, market concentration, production contracts, animal identification, animal welfare, the Packers and Stockyards Act, costs and benefits related to the impact of AFOs on natural resources and the environment, application of state and local zoning laws, and state nuisance laws.

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) defines an “animal feeding operation” as a lot or facility, other than an aquatic animal production facility, where animals “have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period.”  In addition, crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues cannot be sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot or facility in order to be considered an AFO.

The CWA is a central figure in the regulation of animal feeding operations.  In particular, the CWA requires Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permits (NPDES) for their “point source” discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States. CAFOs are a subset of AFOs and used to described AFOs with more than 1,000 animal units. This type of AFO is specifically governed by the “CAFO Rule” in the CWA. The CWA similarly applies to “concentrated aquatic animal production facilities.” The Environmental Protection Agency bears primary responsibility for implementing the CWA and its regulations.  For a broader discussion of the CWA, please visit the Clean Water Act Reading Room

Other Applicable Laws

Other federal statutes have also been implicated in the AFO context.  These statutes include the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.  Each of these federal statutes are attended by extensive implementing regulations.

State and local laws may also impact the operation of AFOs.  Common law actions under nuisance, trespass, or negligence theories have been associated with the operation AFOs.  In addition, state and local land use provisions, zoning ordinances, and other similar measures have also been raised in the AFO context.  For information concerning nuisance, land use, zoning ordinances, and related issues, please visit the Urban Encroachment Reading Room and the Landowner Liability Reading Room.

Production Contracts

AFOs typically operate under legal arrangements referred to as production contracts.   Under these contracts, the processor usually owns and supplies the animals raised by the producer.  The contracts require the animals to be raised in accordance with instructions specified in the contract.  For a more complete discussion of the legal issues surrounding production contracts, please visit the Production Contracts Reading Room.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

The  NRCS offers a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) for AFO and CAFO owners and operators. The goal of this program is help owners and operators take voluntary steps to reduce potential air and water pollutants that stem from the operations. The CNMP is a plan that provides assistance, usually financial, to practices that will protect natural resources.

Other Issue Areas

For information pertaining to application of the Packers and Stockyards Act to AFOs, please visit the Packers and Stockyards Act Reading Room.  Additional information that addresses the interrelationship between AFOs and the National Animal Identification System can be found in the Animal Identification Statutes Publication.  The Finance & Credit Reading Room contains resources relative to financing issues applicable to AFOs.  For research and information related to the application of federal conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), please visit the Conservation Programs Reading Room.  And finally for an overview of environmental laws in general, please see the Environmental Law Reading Room