Large-scale pork production may push farther into Eastern Iowa
More pigs than people
With seven pigs to each Iowan and total pork production in the state up 30 percent in a decade, Iowans concerned about the environmental, health and quality-of-life toll of Iowa’s booming pork industry wonder if anything will slow it.
With legislative leaders not interested in imposing new regulations on the industry, there is one factor that could make it harder for farmers and companies to build large animal-feeding operations in some counties — a shortage of land available for spreading all that manure.
“There are a few counties getting closer, specifically Sioux and Washington County, (where, if they had) many more animals they may not have sufficient land to use all the manure produced in that county,” said Daniel Andersen, Iowa State University assistant professor of manure management and water quality.
The Gazette reviewed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ database of nearly 8,000 medium and large animal-feeding operations to see where they are most prevalent, how fast they’ve grown, who owns them and what regulations govern them.
High-density pork production already has changed some Iowa counties — for better or worse. Even as space for manure distribution runs out in some parts of the state, demand for pork, especially from China, likely will lead to continued expansion of the industry into Eastern Iowa and across state lines, sources said.
The highest concentration of animal-feeding operations in Iowa is in the northwest corner, near processing plants in Perry, Denison and Sioux City, where a $300 million state-of-the-art Seaboard Triumph plant opened last year.
Sioux County has, by far, the largest number of facilities, at 472, followed by Lyon County in a distant second with 313 animal feeding operations.
Another mass of facilities in north-central Iowa will supply a $250 million Prestage Farms pork processing plant to be completed this year.
“Now with the facility in Wright County, we are seeing an expansion in north-Central Iowa,” said Erica Blair, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s farm and environment team.
CCI has been a vocal opponent of large-scale animal production, especially facilities owned by out-of-state interests.
“I don’t even know how that’s even possible, how they’re not stacked on top of one another,” Blair said.
Washington County, with 205 animal feeding operations, has the highest density of any other Eastern Iowa county and is eighth-highest in the state.
“Washington County has always been ranked pretty high in hog production nationally,” said Steve Berger, 54, of Wellman, who, along with four others, owns a sow facility and several finishing barns in Washington County.
“As corn and bean markets slump, we can feed that need through these hogs and produce a quality protein we can sell overseas,” Berger said. “Pigs are the ones that pay the bills.”
'Explosion' of feeding operations
The Iowa Policy Project reported in January there are more than four times as many large animal-feeding operations now as there were in 2001. This “explosion” of facilities, as the report called it, has contributed to water and air pollution, which has hurt Iowans’ health, the report said.
The report summarizes a 2014 article in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology showing veterans who lived within a mile of a large swine facility had nearly double the risk of developing MRSA, believed to be linked to the antibiotics used in pork production.
Two University of Northern Iowa professors published a study in 2008 charting 5,822 home sales in Black Hawk County. Houses within a three-mile radius of an animal feeding operation — especially if they were downwind — had lower property values than other houses in the area, the study found.
“More and more evidence is coming to bear on the health effects of these facilities,” said David Osterberg, a retired University of Iowa occupational and environmental safety professor, founder of the Iowa Policy Project and co-author of the report.
The study, funded in part by a foundation run by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell, advocates for a moratorium on new animal feeding operations, among other fixes.
The building boom for new animal-confinement facilities in Iowa was 2002 through 2006, when the state added about 3,000 medium and large facilities to its database.
Building dropped to fewer than 70 new facilities a year in 2009 and 2010, which could have been caused by the national economic recession or by farmers focusing on planting corn to take advantage of high prices.
There has been steady growth since 2014 in the number of new animal-feeding operations in the state, the Iowa DNR database shows.
Iowa had 451 hog facilities — new buildings and expansions — start construction in 2017, the Iowa DNR reported. The largest number of these, 218, were for hog confinements of 2,499 head or fewer.
Keeping below the 2,500 threshold means the facilities don’t need a construction permit.
The Iowa DNR reported last summer it had identified 5,000 more animal-feeding operations not previously in the database.
These operations, found through the use of satellite imagery, are nearly all small operations that would not require state regulation, said Ken Hessenius, supervisor of the Iowa DNR’s Spencer field office. Four mid-sized operations that should have filed manure management plans are being considered for enforcement action, he said.
Although growth of animal-feeding operations isn’t as rapid as it was 10 years ago, the cumulative effect is the largest number of hogs ever in the state, at 22.6 million on March 1. Ownership of animal-feeding operations also is concentrated in fewer hands than in past decades, Hessenius said.
It’s not always easy to tell who owns animal feeding operations in Iowa.
The Iowa DNR database shows nearly 100 active facilities owned by Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in the state and the eighth largest in the nation, according to the company’s website. Iowa Falls natives Jeff and Deb Hansen founded and run the company, which has 165,000 sows and produces nearly one billion pounds of pork a year, the company reports.
“The company owns the sow farms, which are $18 million facilities with about 18 employees and very high tech,” said Jen Sorenson, spokeswoman for Iowa Select.
The company contracts with another 525 facilities in 50 Iowa counties in Western Iowa and North-Central Iowa, she said.
Contractors own the land and the barns, while Iowa Select owns the hogs. The company pays contractors a monthly fee for raising the hogs until slaughter.
A review by Iowa CCI showed nearly 30 percent of all applications for new or expanded medium and large animal-feeding operations from mid-September to mid-March were connected to Iowa Select.
Room for manure
About 3,500 of Iowa’s animal feeding operations have 1,000 or more animal units, or about 2,500 finishing hogs, which means they need a state construction permit.
To get the permit, owners must score enough points on Iowa’s master matrix for “choosing sites and using practices that reduce adverse impacts on the environment and the community.”
Critics say the matrix is broken, with nearly all permits approved because of tractor-sized loopholes. But proposals to fix the system have gone nowhere in the Iowa Legislature.
More than 7,700 Iowa facilities have manure management plans — required for operations with 500 or more animal units, or about 1,250 finishing hogs. The plans show there’s enough land nearby where manure can be spread or injected as fertilizer.
“That’s a major factor,” Hessenius said. “If you haul liquid manure by tanker 10 miles, it pretty much loses its economic benefit.”
Andersen, the manure management professor, said most Iowa farmland could benefit from more animal manure.
“You could look at it and say animal production has increased greatly,” he said. “But nutrient demand for crop production has as well because our yields are so much higher than they used to be.”
Most Iowa counties get about 30 percent of farm nutrients from animal manure, but Washington County is around 80 to 90 percent, Andersen said.
“That’s led to some of the development that would be in Washington County moving to some of the other counties in Southeast Iowa,” he said. “At some point, it does get harder to write manure management plans and find viable acres in Washington County. That’s causing some people to look for land in alternative areas.”
Sioux County has a similar problem, Andersen said, which has led to more animal confinements jumping the borders into South Dakota or Minnesota. Iowa facilities planning to spread manure in other states still must follow Iowa rules.
Randall Martin is herdsman for Berger’s three Washington County finishing facilities and owns his own barn in Keokuk County, where he’s under contract to finish hogs for Brenneman Pork, based in Washington. He also does custom manure hauling within a 50-mile radius of Washington.
“A lot of the land in Washington County is on a manure-management plan, so you can’t build a barn,” Martin said. “That is what I think is going to slow down the building more than anything.”
More pork in Eastern Iowa?
Not every county has rolled out the red carpet for animal confinements. Dickinson County, home to Iowa’s great lakes and a thriving tourism industry, requires manure-management plans to be brought before the Board of Supervisors — which not every county does — and tries to discourage operations within three miles of lakes and rivers.
“We have $2.2 billion of property value around these lakes,” Dickinson County Supervisor William Leupold said. “I don’t know the perfect solution on this, but I think continuing to build and build and build is a little scary.”
Linn County has only 17 animal-feeding operations, likely because — with many small towns — there isn’t an abundance of available land, Supervisor John Harris said. The county does not require manure-management plans to be reviewed by supervisors.
Johnson County has 27 animal feeding operations and is trying to discourage others, according to its draft 10-year comprehensive plan. The county plans to continue lobbying the Legislature to allow counties to regulate the concentrated operations, encourage best practices and monitor and report leaks, spills and other problems with facilities.
Some Eastern Iowans are taking a stronger stance.
A group of 43 Howard County landowners owning more than 5,000 acres combined signed a covenant last year to refuse liquid manure from large feeding operations. The goal is to make it too expensive for the concentrated feeding operations to open in the area, which has karst topography vulnerable to groundwater pollution.
“With CAFOs going in all around us, we know where they will not be,” Sue George, of Lime Springs, told The Gazette. “That in itself is reassuring.”
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