La Crosse County could be poised to raise the number of livestock animals that can be kept without need for a special permit.
The county’s Planning, Resources and Development Committee this week voted to recommend the county go from 200 animal “units” to 500 before requiring a conditional use permit.
A unit is based on the type of livestock and amount of waste it can produce. A cow, for example, is considered 1.4 units, a market hog 0.4, a sheep 0.1.
Going to 500 would match the state’s limit, set in 2006, well after La Crosse County had established its threshold.
The county since 1981 has favored fewer livestock in light of its steeper terrain, to guard against overgrazing, erosion, nutrient runoff and other environmental damage.
The limit doesn’t mean livestock operations can’t grow, but requires they complete plans, testing and other requirements to obtain the permit, a process critics say can cost thousands of dollars.
Several members of the La Crosse County chapter of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation argued in February for the higher limits, saying modern farming practices and better manure management had reduced the risk of runoff. They submitted a petition with about 200 signatures supporting the move.
The county’s lower limit has long been a source of contention, with farmers saying the restriction and additional regulations discourage growth and put them at a competitive disadvantage.
The committee in 2011 had resisted raising the limit, but the 2012 elections changed its makeup. Voting in favor of the higher limits Monday were supervisors Tina Wehrs, Ray Ebert, Richard Becker and chairwoman Marilyn Pedretti.
Pedretti, who had opposed the move in the past and said she remains unconvinced, switched her stance so the issue could get an airing before the full board.
Wehrs, who represents the towns of Barre, Greenfield and Washington, said having a different livestock limit than the state creates confusion and makes producers reluctant to come to the county for fear they already are over the 200 units, so might face additional costs for being out of compliance.
But Gregg Stangl, county land conservation director, thinks the additional restraints are warranted, since virtually every La Crosse County farm drains into an area waterway.
With water tests showing growing nutrient levels, especially phosphorus, now is not the time for higher livestock limits, Stangl said.
He also warned if La Crosse County changes its limits, it can never go back to a lower number than the state’s.
The committee tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the change and other proposed revisions of the county’s zoning code for 6:30 p.m. May 22, at a site yet to be determined.