Trying to do better



An old friend walked in to renew his subscription and drop off a copy of a trade magazine with a story of how the poultry industry cut antibiotic use by a third from 2016 to 2017. That’s pretty impressive. Our friend, who raises turkeys, hogs, corn and beans, thought we should know about that. He is a conscientious farmer, nearing 60, educated by Iowa State, who was reared on a small farm near Storm Lake with a few cows, a henhouse and hogs. Most farmers we know are very much like him, interested in learning how to become better.

To stay in business, our friend and his brother got out of independently farrowing pigs and concentrated on turkeys and finishing hogs on contract. It is a good source of steady income and green fertilizer. They try to be good stewards. They believe in using science and husbandry to manage disease for the welfare of their livestock. They closely follow new building technologies and processes that can improve biosecurity and reduce disease. He talks of how the swine companies, who once targeted rate-of-gain or lean qualities, are shifting back to breeding for hardiness against disease.

The key to operating a livestock confinement for profit and the welfare of humans and animals is through management, our friend believes, and he has done all right by it. He is painfully aware of avian and swine flu, having dealt the devastating avian flu sweep of 2015. He said the industry has made real gains in understanding how to manage and prevent disease.

That has enabled Iowa Select Farms to ramp up production in northern Iowa as two new packers come on line in Eagle Grove and Sioux City. Sows are moving back from the Dakotas into Sac County, when concerns over disease from animal density had previously driven feeder pig production outside Iowa. In turn, this elevates concern about how much confined livestock we can handle. Pork production is much more dispersed in Iowa than in North Carolina, and the soil types in the Des Moines lobe are well-suited to manure. But we have started to notice elevating levels of phosphorous in Saylorville Lake downstream from over-application of manure. It is the principal culprit of toxic algae in Lake Erie, which plagues Toledo’s drinking water.

The facilities at Rembrandt Foods are not that far removed from grandma’s henhouse. It is just exponentially larger, shipping liquid eggs across the country to large industrial consumers. Those customers have demanded that the hens not be in cages, and Rembrandt is shifting production in response. It is pelletizing its chicken litter to ship to manure-deficient areas that will help soil fertility. The industry is changing.

A hog will walk indoors if you leave the door open. The problem is not with confinements but with how they are managed, and how much of it we are able to manage as a state. Our nose tells us that Iowa is approaching its limits.

That does not necessarily mean that a moratorium on new livestock confinements is advisable. The new ones are better than the old ones. Some areas can add confinements; in karst soil areas they should be banned. We would like to know that the state is able to monitor how that manure is used and when.

We need a landscape approach that sees cattle back on grass in Iowa to help solve our water quality problems. But we also need to remember that not everyone can use land that way, especially when you were forced to make strategic decisions 20 or 30 years ago that lock you into a certain production mode.

Many people believe that livestock confinement and industrial meat processing are the problem. They are not, they are expressions of cheap corn planted on too many acres. The problem is that there are no guide rails. There are no stream buffer requirements, no conservation set-asides required for crop insurance. There is no enforcement of anti-trust laws, which resulted in the disappearance of the open swine and poultry markets. The issue in agriculture is concentration, as it always has been. Hygrade was among the big four meatpackers, then IBP and now Tyson. But in Hygrade’s days, the big three or four controlled 40% of the market. Now they control well over 60% of production. Decisions have been made since the 1980s by Democratic and Republican administrations to allow this concentration to occur. Blowing up Tyson is not the answer. Adding transparency to swine and cattle markets would be a good start. Providing more protection for contract growers would be a great next step. Developing a serious flu vaccination program would add security against another pending pandemic. We need more USDA-funded research into livestock disease that sees tremendous loss rates in confinement nurseries. And, we need to protect labor in the packinghouse, too, with steadily increasing wages and safety protections.

Often, the farmer in the middle of these discussions held at 10,000 feet is not understood or appreciated, or is forgotten altogether. That’s one reason we invited presidential candidates to come to Buena Vista University on March 30 to discuss these issues. How can we sustain livestock production without polluting our drinking water? What do we do for those people locked into soy-corn rotations who are getting whipped by the Trump Administration? How can we make sure that our old friend is kept whole while everything around him is changing faster than he can think, and there is nothing he can do but react?

Going in, that friend is on the top of our minds, and the 2,500 families working at Tyson in Storm Lake who depend on his hogs and turkeys to keep their paychecks coming. It’s the system we have, where most of us are trying to figure out a better way in difficult times, as always.