Nobles County's new feedlot officer has a 'passion for pigs'

Jan. 8—WORTHINGTON — After 14 years in the swine industry, Emily Erickson is bringing plenty of knowledge and experience to her new role as Nobles County's newest environmental specialist — a position better known as "feedlot officer."

"I'm super excited to get into this work. I love that pieces of it fit into my previous career with animal welfare in the pig world," Erickson said. "I'm really excited to learn more about the cattle industry and the poultry industry."

As an environmental specialist, she'll be managing the county's feedlot permits and registrations, and coordinating with state-level feedlot registration as well. She started the job on Dec. 5.

By agreement between Nobles County and the state of Minnesota, the feedlot inspector is required to complete certain tasks and assist the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in maintaining state-level rules and regulations applying to feedlots.

"At the end of the day, the MPCA mandates the rules and regulations in regards to feedlots, but then, on top of that, the county can have their own ordinances as well," Erickson explained. "My job is to enforce both of them."

In southwest Minnesota, the term "feedlot" is likely most associated with swine and cattle production, but in reality, it applies to any livestock facility or operation, and the rules for them are based on the number of "animal units" in a facility.

Every animal is weighted differently and assigned an "animal unit" value in the formula, but not based on its size. Instead, it's based on the amount of manure the animal produces annually, Erickson explained.

"So a heifer or a steer would be 1 animal unit, but a pig is 0.3 of an animal unit," she said, adding that anyone with more than 10 animal units is required to register with the state of Minnesota.

A mature dairy cow weighing more than 1,000 pounds is 1.4 animal units, whereas a sheep is just 0.1 animal unit, according to the MPCA, but a turkey weighing more than 5 pounds is just 0.018 animal units.

The rules are based on how much waste is produced, whether the feedlot facility can handle the manure storage, and having the proper manure management plan to go with it, regardless of the size of the facility.

"It's not based on how many animals or animal units you have on the site, it's all based on the manure and the potential for pollution control needing to be done on your farm," Erickson said.

Most of her duties will revolve around permit applications for feedlots, including building new facilities or expanding existing ones. She'll also need to inspect a certain number of sites per year.

"Once we get past cold snaps like this, I can go out and start meeting with farmers and start inspecting the feedlots they have," Erickson said, referring to the severe weather around the Christmas holiday. "It's to confirm that they have the number of animal units they say they have, but the greater piece of that inspection is: are you containing that manure?"

If there are complaints, she'll look into them, observe the problem and come up with ways to fix it, working with the producer for a solution.

Most of her work will involve pig barns and feedlots for market cattle, but there are also a few hobby farms in Nobles County that "have a little bit of everything, which is great to see!" Erickson said.

Erickson has plenty of experience in animal agriculture, as she grew up on the Mark and Judy Bartosh farm in the northeastern corner of Nobles County. She earned an animal science degree at South Dakota State University and right out of college, went into the swine industry.

"I worked in an animal welfare role, so it was compliance-oriented," she said. "Are they following the animal welfare practices that we have outlined in our operating procedures?"

Eventually, she transitioned into a training and human resources development role, but with that role came a significant amount of travel. She decided to look for a new position that would allow her to spend more time with her children, Gus, a fourth-grader, and Hazel, a second-grader.

Erickson's father told her about the open feedlot inspector position, and she went in for an interview on a whim.

"I enjoyed working with the producers a lot. In my position as animal welfare manager, I spent the majority of my time out in the barns with producers, walking through and looking at pigs," she said. "I don't know what it is that led to the passion for pigs, but I always enjoyed walking through the barns and working with the producers and learning from them too."

Some of those producers had been in the field for 30 years longer than Erickson had been, so there was always something to learn, along with the potential for showing the producer a different way of doing things that could benefit the health and well-being of their animals.

"This is a little bit different than animal welfare compliance ... in some respects, but in some ways it's a lot the same," Erickson said, noting that she'll be coming in with an open mind and plenty to learn about state and county regulations as well as the history of the local farms and systems of Nobles County.

"There's a lot of people that are either expanding or they're starting to get their family members involved in farming, and for me, it's just bringing a lot of patience to the process to understand each of those families' scenarios and understand what their own goals are for their farms and operations," she said. "And hopefully, in time, once I start learning more of the rules and regulations, I hope to be able to bring some clarity to the farmers."