– The Fehr family thinks big. Members have built their Riverview Farms LLP into the largest single milk producer in Minnesota, with five massive dairy operations that house more than 34,500 cows.

But when they proposed a new $55 million dairy feedlot last year, a panel of citizen regulators balked because of environmental concerns, and now their standoff has rural Minnesota asking: How big is too big?

“We used to be concerned about 1,000 head in one location,’’ said James Riddle, a member of the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Now it’s 10,000 head.’’

The jolt didn’t stop the Fehrs, who quickly secured two other sites for major expansions. But it angered some of Minnesota’s most powerful farm organizations and ended a decade of relative calm in the battle over large-scale confinement of farm animals.

In southwestern Minnesota, the town of Hendricks has sued to stop a 4,000-cow dairy operation proposed just across the border in South Dakota. In Dodge County, citizens are challenging the proliferation of huge swine barns. At the Capitol, feedlot operators are asking for an exemption from state law on neighbors’ nuisance claims.

Common to all the battles is a concern that the huge feedlots will deplete local groundwater, spill manure into waterways and produce gassy odors that spoil rural living. Neighbors and conservationists also believe that outsized livestock operations are squeezing out smaller, more diversified farms that they say are healthier for the land.

22 hours a day

At a typical Riverview dairy, multiple milk trucks park at loading doors around the clock, accepting instantly chilled milk as it’s pumped from the cows.

The milking parlors run 22 hours a day — including 80-stall, rotary units that circle just slowly enough for cows to walk into the stanchions, get milked, and back themselves out in one spin.

The raw milk is trucked to commercial cheese plants in Minnesota and North Dakota — more than 56 semi-loads of milk per week from Riverview’s biggest plants.

The contrast to a conventional dairy farm is stunning. In Stearns County, long a dairy stronghold, the average operator milks 100 cows. The county’s biggest dairy farm has 2,000 cows — 900 fewer than Riverview’s smallest operation.

But Brad Fehr, Riverview’s co-owner, said the focus on herd size is irrelevant to environmental compliance. His company, on its way to controlling nearly 50,000 cows and heifers at seven Minnesota locations, has won praise from MPCA feedlot specialists and regional watershed managers for its well-designed and well-run facilities.

Nevertheless, Riverview ran into resistance last August, when the MPCA Citizens’ Board ordered an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a mega-dairy that the company proposed for Baker Township, near the town of Chokio. At the meeting, Riddle pleaded for an EIS in part because Riverview was a “huge operation’’ that was already cleared to build two other hulking dairies in west-central Minnesota.

“Given the significance of … their overall operation and its impact on the entire culture of that region, as well as the environment, [I think] that an EIS is warranted,’’ Riddle said.

Fehr said the decision, which ran against the recommendation of MPCA staff, was driven by politics and emotion, not facts and science.

The ruling was heralded by the project’s passionate opponents, including some neighbors who have known the Fehr family for decades.

“The power of people was heard over the power of money,’’ said Paul Sobocinski, a livestock and crop farmer who also works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit ecology group based in Lewiston, Minn.

Sobocinski said the massive dairy operations displace smaller farms that produce a diversity of livestock and crops. In the closed loop of these modest operations, the crops feed the animals and the manure fertilizes the farm’s own fields. Milking factories like the one proposed for Baker Township produce so much manure that it must be stored for months in man-made ponds and applied to fields for miles around.

Yet there’s no doubt that Minnesota dairy farms are getting fewer and bigger. The number of Minnesota dairy farms dropped by 27 percent from 2002 to 2012, but the number of cows scarcely changed.

Positive trend?

Behind the debate over feedlots is rising concern about nitrate pollution in Minnesota’s waters.

A state study released in 2013 showed elevated nitrate levels in many rivers and streams, particularly in southern Minnesota. The primary source of the nitrates is cropland agriculture, the study said, but confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) also can contribute because of manure spills and misapplication of manure on fields. Of the 56 most serious enforcement actions taken against Minnesota feedlots by the MPCA from 2011 through 2014, almost one-third involved manure flow violations, records show.

“The nutrient content of the manure generated on the CAFO is one of the most significant problems,’’ the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a risk assessment of facilities around the country.

MPCA officials admit that Minnesota feedlots are on the honor system to follow agency-approved manure management plans. But Gaylen Reetz, who heads the agency’s watershed division, said compliance is strong and that manure application actually has the potential to ease the state’s nitrate problem. Companies like Riverview, he noted, hire commercial experts to inject the manure into soil in ways that reduce runoff into creeks and streams.

In addition, he said, dairy farmers governed by state permits use pre-calculated amounts of manure and are limited by contract with area farmers. With chemical fertilizers, there is no similar oversight.

“We actually think livestock in Minnesota is good for diversity of the landscape,’’ Reetz said. “We think the trend is positive.’’

The Fehr family started farming in the Morris area in the 1930s; brothers Brad and Gary, along with their father, Lloyd, shifted from beef to dairy starting in 1995. They have since expanded to the point where they can now put up $25 million in cash when building new facilities. The company employs 700 people, predominantly from Mexico, and houses some in on-site dormitories.

Don Schiefelbein, a former MPCA Citizens’ Board member appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to represent farmers, said the board’s ruling on the proposed Baker dairy sent shock waves through the industry because Riverview is seen as a safe, clean and profitable operator. He said an EIS is a “death sentence to a project like that’’ because of the expense, time and drain of resources to complete it.

According to the MPCA, only one other large-scale dairy has ever been ordered by the agency to complete an EIS.

Board in the cross hairs

Now, the Citizens’ Board decision is fueling a wider fight. As Schiefelbein put it: “You don’t pick on the student who is doing well.’’

At the State Capitol, the incident has given rise to open talk among some Republicans and farm lobbyists about eliminating or restricting the Citizens’ Board, a panel of Minnesotans appointed by the governor to set direction for the MPCA. Fehr said the board, chaired by the MPCA commissioner, had no business ordering an EIS when agency staff felt otherwise.

Fehr said the ruling prompted him to spend two weeks airing his concerns with groups like the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, Minnesota Farm Bureau and the State Cattlemen’s Association. For years the cattlemen have sought to end the MPCA’s permit authority over large CAFOs — a prospect that worries high-level MPCA officials like Reetz.

Across the state, the Fehr’s two new proposed dairies have ignited additional battles. One, near Willmar, will contain 9,500 animals. The other, called Dollymount, was recently re-approved for 7,500 cows and heifers near Lake Traverse.

“I will dread the day when I see the construction equipment come by,’’ said Marilyn Mathias, a Dollymount neighbor who organized unsuccessful opposition to the project.

In Baker Township, elected officials are considering a moratorium on CAFOs over 1,000 animal units, and adjoining townships have expressed interest in joining the movement.

Riddle, of the Citizens’ Board, said he and his colleagues had good grounds to demand a thorough environmental review of the Baker feedlot, which would be situated in a watershed that already has pollution troubles. The proposal allowed the dairy to use up to 135 million gallons a year from a trio of wells, raising concerns that it could drain aquifers to the detriment of other farmers and residents.

In addition, Riddle said, many neighbors were refusing Riverview access to their fields to spread some of the 63 million gallons of manure it would produce annually. At the time of the hearing, Riverview was far short of the commitments it needed.

“We certainly felt justified in our action,’’ Riddle said.