Cattle have been a passion of Joe Wagner's since he was young.

A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Wagner grew up on a farm on Gravel Pit Road, north of Millerville. In 2004, he started his own cattle farm from the ground up on a bare site along that same road.

When he built it, he allowed room for the possibility of expanding one day.

And expanding he is - to about 8,000 head of cattle, making his farm the third largest beef cattle feedlot in the state of Minnesota, according to Forrest Peterson from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The largest beef cattle feedlot is Revier Cattle Company in Renville County, which is permitted by the MCPA for 10,500 head of cattle, said Peterson, with the second largest, Minnesota Supreme Feeder in Cottonwood County, permitted for 9,800 head of beef cattle. Peterson also noted that there are several very large dairy cattle operations in the state as well.

"I guess I've always liked cattle," said Joe Wagner. His wife, Hope, said, "And he's really good at farming."

The Wagners, who live a few miles from their farm site on County Road 7 NW, have four boys whom they hope will take over the family farm someday - Roman, 4; Rocco, 3; Maxwell, 2; and Cash, who will be 8 months old in January.

Currently, the Wagners' farm has up to 800 head of beef cattle, but that number will be increasing tenfold in the near future. And so will the amount of corn to feed to his cattle. Currently, the Wagners go through about 125,000 to 150,000 bushels of corn each year. Once their operation expands, Joe said he anticipates going through about a 1 million bushels of corn each year.

"This is a win-win for our corn farmers," said Joe. "I'll be looking for corn as we like to support the local farmers."

The feed the Wagners will be using is a mixture of corn, hay and by-product from ethanol plants. "It's an excellent feed and all of the components will be coming from within a 60 to 80 mile radius," he said. "Although we'll be getting the corn from within a 20-mile radius."

Wagner said his beef will be marketed at various processing facilities in the Upper Midwest.

Additionally, he will be hiring up to five more employees, as well as several more hired help and labor.

"The amount of work that will go into this operation is a lot. It is going to be quite the operation," said Joe. "It's going to be a challenge, but I like challenges. I think it brings out the best in people."

Several years ago, when Joe began thinking about growing his beef cattle operation, he started touring facilities that were much larger than his - looking at layout, types of structures and how they were operated.

In 2014, his plans became a reality and the process began. Numerous permits were required, not only from the county and state, but also on the federal level. The process was long and arduous, but worth it, said the Wagners.

"Feedlots are held to a high standard, higher sometimes than large metro areas," said Joe. He explained that manure and the amount of manure produced by such a large operation is usually the point of contention with a lot of people. He said many people think that the amount of manure produced at such a large facility would be equivalent to the cities populated by hundreds of thousands of people.

"They typically infer that all of that manure is or maybe discharged from the farm site, when in reality, the answer is none of it is discharged," said Joe. He added that when large storms with heavy rain occur, large feedlots have controls in place to comply with rules and regulations, controls that he says are better than the sewer systems of some large cities.

As for permits and standards, one of the last hurdles for the expansion project was met last Tuesday, Dec. 20, when the Douglas County Board of Commissioners approved the conditional use permit for the beef cattle feedlot expansion project. The Wagners can now begin growing their operation from 680 animal units to 6,800 animal units, which is roughly 8,000 head of cattle.

The conditional use permit didn't come without its share of conditions - 18 of them in all.

Here's a look at some of the conditions:

• Slaughter steers and feeder cattle or heifers are the only type of livestock permitted.

• The applicant must maintain a manure management plan to accommodate manure produced for the number of animals registered for the site. The manure management plan must be approved in writing by the county feedlot officer or designee before the plan may be implemented.

• All manure application must comply with MPCA requirements.

• The runoff basins must be maintained to prevent them from overflowing. An

emergency response plan shall be developed for the basins in the event of heavy rain.

Joe and Hope don't have a definitive timeline as to when their expansion will be done. There are a few more permits to secure, 200,000 yards of dirt to be moved, formal construction plan to finish, bids to get, contractors to hire and much more.

"We hope to get going this coming spring, but to finish up in 2017 is going to be a stretch," said Joe. "Realistically, it will probably be 2018."

WHAT IS AN ANIMAL UNIT?

The Wagner feedlot will go from 680 animal units to 6,800 animal units, which is roughly 8,000 head of cattle.

Animal units (AU) are used in the permitting, registration and the environmental review process because they allow equal standards for all animals based on size and manure production. An AU is calculated by multiplying the number of animals by an animal unit factor for the specific type of animal.

Source: Minnesota Department of Agriculture