How much more manure can we handle?

Under the current construct, we already are over the limit

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

A rapid and significant expansion in swine facilities here and across Iowa — with unheeded calls in the legislature for a moratorium on more building — causes one to wonder just how much manure we can handle.

Even the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors is starting to push back against plans for new hoghouses — such as one just across the road from where a family intended to build its dream retirement home. There is no local control, the supervisors are getting heat and the state law ignores their concerns. Iowa Select will come in wherever it pleases.

This is the result of the pork industry insisting that any regulation of agriculture must be under the purview of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. We remember then-Rep. Russ Eddie, R-Storm Lake, himself a pork producer, declaring that you cannot have 99 sets of rules for agriculture. Hence, the supervisors can only stand on the sidelines and complain, and perhaps ask themselves why we have 99 counties, and why we pay all those supervisors to stand on the sidelines. The system was set up so it could not be controlled. When the IDNR confined feeding coordinator, Gene Tinker, started to advise counties on how they might effectively object to new permits, Tinker’s job was eliminated.

Now that statewide duty falls to Ken Hesenius of the Spencer IDNR office, who already was supposed to oversee 8,000 confinements in 10 Northwest counties.

None of us are actually certain how many confinements are in those 10 counties, or the 89 others, because IDNR cannot keep track of them all. Manure management plans are put on paper in a file cabinet and are kept dark so they do not decay.

This is the way the integrated corporate structure likes it.

So we actually do not know how much manure is being applied to Iowa land. This from two of the leading public university researchers into nitrate and phosphorous loadings into Iowa rivers who asked that their identities were not revealed for fear of losing their jobs or program funding.

One graduate research study at Iowa State figures that in Sioux County — where there are lots of cattle, hogs and chickens, more even than Buena Vista or Sac — the average nitrogen application from all sources (manure and commercial and natural) is 415 pounds per acre. Iowa State’s nitrogen application standard for the state is 140 pounds per acre. The research also shows that Sioux County purchases no less commercial fertilizer than any other of the Top 10 corn counties in Iowa. They simply are overloaded with livestock and anhydrous ammonia, wearing suspenders with two sets of belts in the relentless quest for 200-bushel corn to feed those hogs.

The result is that nitrate readings in the Floyd River are through the roof. It peaks at over 20 milligrams per liter (the federal guideline is 10 mg/l, while the University of Iowa College of Public Health recommends 5 mg/l). On Monday it was running at about 17 mg/l, like the Iowa River was, and the Raccoon River at Sac City posted a reading of 12.4 mg/l. All the stream monitors in Northwest Iowa were over any limits this week. And that is not rare.

The Des Moines Water Works sued Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over all this. CEO Bill Stowe says that the Des Moines Lobe, the richest corn ground on Earth, is oversaturated with manure. It shows up in Saylorville Reservoir with high phosphorous levels that lead to potentially deadly cyanotoxins — blue green algae that also infests Lake Erie from animal agriculture runoff. It appears that about half the Saylorville phosphorous comes from soil erosion and about half is dissolved in the water, suggesting liquid manure.

We have increased our phosphorous application five-fold since 1950.

There is no question that this land can take manure from the livestock we have. The question is why farmers in Sioux County would waste so much money on commercial fertilizer, why they aren’t soil testing or why they aren’t developing markets for their manure on land that needs it.

We probably could handle the hogs we have, and then some, with better landscape management and if we respected our neighbors.

If we grew less corn and more grass with cattle grazing it, we would have more jobs in rural communities and fewer water quality problems. If we had local control, that Iowa Select farm would go to an appropriate site and not next door to that retirement dream cottage or in a karst soil structure. There are plenty of places around Iowa to site a hoghouse, and there are plenty of places that need chicken litter. Rembrandt Enterprises is selling that product to manure-deficient counties and finds value in it. It is figuring out ways to deliver a consistent product whose value can be measured.

But when you locate next to a residence, when you skirt the rules by living the letter and not spirit of the hoghouse law, when you ignore the board of supervisors, then the agronomic and scientific and economic arguments for livestock get thrown out the window. People want a moratorium because they think it is out of control. And it is. The readings in our rivers are clear evidence. And the fear of tenured academics speaks volumes to the chokehold that the agri-chemical cabal has on this state.