Public Safety

Overflowing manure tanks reported in western Iowa, Eastern Iowa on alert

Runoff can kill fish, degrade water quality for drinking and recreation

Floodwaters surround farm buildings March 18 near Luton in northwest Iowa. Many roads in the area remained closed in the aftermath of this month’s widespread flooding. (Tim Hynds/ Sioux City Journal)
Floodwaters surround farm buildings March 18 near Luton in northwest Iowa. Many roads in the area remained closed in the aftermath of this month’s widespread flooding. (Tim Hynds/ Sioux City Journal)

Spring flooding is causing problems for western Iowa animal feeding operations, with overflowing manure lagoons reported at eight northwest Iowa feedlots and farmers telling of other challenges, including difficulty getting water to animals.

Eastern Iowa so far has been spared widespread major flooding, but state Department of Natural Resources officials say manure storage space here is running out and the ground still is too wet to apply manure as a fertilizer.

“The conditions there (in western Iowa) are very extreme and we were on the verge of that,” said Brian Jergenson, senior environmental specialist for the Iowa DNR’s Manchester field office. “We realize how close we were to those conditions.”

Manure overtopping lagoons or seeping from farm fields can kill fish and dirty water used for drinking or recreation. Breached manure lagoons were one of the major public health concerns after Hurricane Florence last fall swept through North Carolina.

Eight northwest Iowa animal feeding operators reported flooding-related manure discharges from March 1 through Thursday, according to Iowa DNR records. Three were in Lyon County, two in Sioux County and one each in Plymouth, O’Brien and Pocahontas counties.

Northwest Iowa has the highest concentration of animal feeding operations in the state, with Sioux and Lyon being No. 1 and 2, respectively, for the number of hogs as of last spring.

“Manure storage is overflowing,” state the descriptions of six incidents. Another says “the lagoon is just starting to run over on the south side.”

Flooding also prevented some operators from getting to their animals.

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The Rock Valley Rural Water District, in Rock Valley, reported to the Iowa DNR a “hog confinement without water,” but the agency and the district could not immediately provide more details about the incident.

David James, special projects manager for Parks Livestock, said he and his staff could not get to a half-dozen hog finishing barns in southwest Iowa earlier this month because access roads were flooded. The barns never lost electricity, so hogs still had water and food. But employees were not able to check on the animals or see how the facilities were holding up.

“We have to use boats to get there, but one day the water was too fast,” James told The Gazette.

The company even considered using a helicopter to get to the barns, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Conditions have improved, James said Monday, but there still is limited access to two finishing barns.

The Iowa DNR is considering enforcement actions against a Buena Vista County feedlot operator after manure he applied to fields earlier this month ran into Storm Lake.

Don Jackson, who owns Pike Farms cattle feedlot, told the state he surface-applied solid manure for three days in mid-March, including during a March 13 rain, according to a March 15 news release.

The Iowa DNR couldn’t tell whether a fish kill had occurred because ice still was covering the lake at the time.

Liquid manure application is prohibited in Iowa on snow- or ice-covered ground from Dec. 21 to April 1, with some exceptions, to reduce manure runoff into Iowa waterways. But nearly 80 animal feeding operators requested waivers as of Dec. 3 because an early freeze in November cut short the window for applying manure as a fertilizer.

Now, with a long winter, operators have had to store manure much longer than usual, Jergenson said.

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“They are anxious,” he said. “A lot do have alternate storage structures they can transfer the manure to if conditions get worse.”

The Manchester field office recently cited several operators for having storage tanks with too little spare space, Jergenson said.

Rain could worsen the manure overflow problems across the state, but Jergenson said the Eastern Iowa forecast looks dry enough for now that fields should be able to harden sufficiently for manure application in five to 10 days.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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