A new study commissioned by the state Department of Agriculture considers whether more animal agriculture — and the manure it generates — should be moved from eastern Pennsylvania to Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong counties.
The study, titled “Manurefest Destiny: Opportunities for Animal Agriculture in Western Pennsylvania,” was conducted by the Penn State College of Agriculture Sciences over concerns that certain eastern counties are not meeting their federal obligation to reduce pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
The study posits shifting the state’s animal agriculture industry away from the Susquehanna River basin to the Ohio River basin. It concludes that substantial obstacles exist.
“The three counties together could support about 78,000 dairy cattle or about 100,000 beef cattle if all the … suitable areas from an environmental perspective were cultivated with corn and fertilized by manure nitrogen,” the study said.
Such growth, if ever realized, would represent a substantial increase in animal agriculture and animal waste in Westmoreland County and might not be sustainable, local experts said.
“My concern is can we support that number and still maintain the water quality and other quality of life we have here?” said Ronald Rohall, chairman of the Westmoreland Conservation District board.
As a member of the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission , Rohall has been involved in statewide efforts to reduce the amount of agricultural pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River basin.
Pennsylvania is responsible for roughly half of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay each year and more than a quarter of the phosphorous, according to a 2017 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.
“These counties (Lancaster, Lebanon, Franklin and Union) generate more manure than available cropland can safely absorb, and animal production exceeds the carrying capacity of the landscape,” the EIP study said.
Senior attorney Abel Russ, author of the EIP study, said transporting manure westward is one way to reduce the amount of land-applied manure in Pennsylvania’s agricultural “hot spots,” but it may just replicate the problem in the western counties.
“I think it’s a reasonable short-term solution because the immediate problem is there’s too much manure in those (eastern) counties,” he said, referring to the large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, that generate much of the manure.
Rohall said the idea of shifting animal agriculture and animal manure westward has been “bounced around” for years without a firm plan for how to do it. The Penn State study tests the feasibility of the idea without getting into specifics.
“This is not a brand new idea. The economics may be becoming better, as the need to improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay increases,” Rohall said.
The Penn State study started with a 2016 “call for proposals” put out by the state Department of Agriculture, seeking data on land availability, trucking capacity and transportation infrastructure in Western Pennsylvania.
“This is more about establishing new (animal agriculture) operations, not moving operations,” state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers said. “It’s more a matter of looking at Westmoreland County and the surrounding area as a growth opportunity, and looking at the challenges to doing that and exploring that fully.”
Powers said animal manure is a “tremendous resource” for farmers, so this is a “share-the-wealth” opportunity.
In addition to its capacity for beef cattle and dairy cattle, the three-county area has about 323,000 acres available for “manure utilization,” the study said. Only 35 percent of that land is considered moderately or highly suitable for that purpose.
Penn State researchers said the concept faces significant hurdles in the three counties because of the lack of large livestock processors, livestock production input suppliers and “agglomeration economies” on which to build as well as insufficient transportation infrastructure.
Agglomeration economies are defined as the benefits that businesses obtain by locating close to suppliers, workers and customers.
The three counties studied were chosen because they rank low in the state for livestock production and have room for growth. While Westmoreland County ranks fifth in the state for sheep and lambs, it ranks 27th for cattle and calves, according to the latest state Agricultural Census.
Westmoreland County has 587 livestock farms, while Lancaster County has 3,954, according to the census. Compared to Westmoreland’s sole meat processing facility, Lancaster County has nine, according to 2015 data cited in the study.
Gregory Phillips, manager of the Westmoreland Conservation District, said the county does not have the tradition of large agricultural operations that Lancaster County does and may not be appropriate for the large-scale shift envisioned by the report.
“I like the fact that we’re one-third agriculture and one-half forested,” Phillips said. “Our 1,000 farms are relatively small. … It’s no coincidence that these CAFOs aren’t in Westmoreland County and that our water quality is pretty good.”
Phillips, however, agreed with the Penn State study that the area’s abandoned surface coal mines are potential areas for manure utilization.
“There are marginal places where we could use (manure) nutrients, but I wouldn’t want to overload those areas,” he said. “You’d have to be careful about the application.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.