The scoop on poop: how Iowa farmers manage manure responsibly
I found it lurking behind the air conditioner in our back yard; was it evidence that the wayward cougar spotted weeks ago in Des Moines was still around? The scat definitely wasn’t left by our two small dogs and was too big to be from a stray cat. So I posted the photo on Facebook to find out and got dozens of suggestions on what this pile of poop might be and the potential threat to my family.
That’s when it occurred to me: people pay attention to poop. I know University of Iowa researcher Chris Jones certainly does, and that’s why he used a lot of ‘fancy math’ to claim that “Iowa ranks number one in number two." He’s been called on a lot to ring alarm bells about Iowa’s livestock farming success by those who try and tie it to water quality challenges.
As one media entity after another picked up the poop blog, I was reminded of an old quote I kept taped to my desk back when I was in the news business: “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” John Naisbitt, you were so right!
Which information is true, and where does Iowa really stand when it comes to people and poop? Let’s start with the basics.
Why is manure a good fertilizer for Iowa farmers?
Comparing hog manure to human waste stinks. That’s because one has value and the other doesn’t.
Responsible management of manure brings real value to farming because manure is an organic source of fertilizer for crops and it improves soil composition. Today, livestock farmers hold manure on the farm and use special equipment to insert liquid manure just a couple inches below the surface of their nearby fields. They call it "injecting" manure because it is measured, "prescribed" and only put where plants need it most, when they need it most. That kind of precision provides valuable nutrients for the soil and protects our waterways. Depending on the size of the farm, farmers must file manure management plans and must be certified through special Extension classes to apply manure. Farmers would rather put on free organic fertilizer than buy synthetic chemicals to fertilize their crops, so yes, manure is a valuable resource.
On the other hand, human manure is not valuable. (If you have found a way to put your human waste to use, I’d rather not know about it.) Same goes with dog poop. I can tell you I got a lot of vigorous head shakes in my Master Gardener class when I asked why dog poop can’t be added to a compost pile to fertilize a garden : it’s because as carnivores, dog poop is high in protein which produces a very acidic waste product. Dog poop has bacteria and parasites. Bad as that sounds, human waste is even worse, because humans take all kinds of things that are never completely absorbed: blood thinners, heart medications, painkillers and that testosterone cream your Uncle Vic takes – trace amounts are excreted by humans and it all makes its way down the drain . Even today, we don’t have the technology to remove all traces of pharmaceuticals from tap water!
Why does Iowa have more pigs than people?
Critics of modern agriculture say it’s a bad thing that we have more pigs than people in Iowa today. Yet did you know that even the earliest available USDA Ag Census shows there have always been more pigs than people in Iowa? In 1925 there were 8.6 million pigs raised in Iowa. That’s four times the current population of Iowa. Today, farmers raise 22.7 million pigs and that agricultural success has put Iowa on the globe.
Dr. Daniel Andersen, ISU Animal Production Systems engineer, says we should be both proud and confident in that success. He says the assumption that we have too many pigs is flat-out wrong. “We lead the nation in growing crops, so we have the capacity and the need for that manure. The latest Ag Census shows Iowa has 30,563,878 acres devoted to farmland, which is 85.6% of Iowa’s land area. Today, only 25 percent of that farmland can be supported through manure. We could double hog production and still have the capacity to handle the manure,” Andersen says. That need makes Iowa uniquely suited for agriculture and, specifically, livestock farming.
Numbers matter. It’s why Andersen was also critical of the formula Jones used to compare people to pigs in Iowa to other states. “He needs to change the denominator in his estimates, because comparing the total land areas of our state to another doesn’t factor in the number of farmed acres. Looking at farmed acres spells out the ‘need’ for manure, which was completely ignored. Comparing farmed acres , would drop our state’s manure ranking from 1st to 14th. Why he chose Delaware I can’t even imagine because it’s not like they’re putting manure in cities, so why even use that state?” says Andersen.
Asking about comparisons Jones made between Iowa and Bangladesh elicited groans on the other end of the line.
Why are pigs important to Iowa?
So, it’s well known that pigs and pig manure is valuable to farmers. But, what about the rest of us?
Even Iowans who don’t raise pigs have jobs that depend on them and that’s always been the case in this state. In 1925, there were more than 215,000 farms in Iowa. That’s not surprising — there were more farms because most Iowans had to grow their own food or had a personal relationship with someone who did. We didn’t have refrigerated trucks to haul our food across the country. Heck, some states were still hauling critical products by dog sled back then (remember Balto?). Choices at the local grocery store were few and far between.
Today, a single 2,400 head modern hog barn supports 15 jobs in the local area. In addition to hog production, slaughter and processing, the hog industry supports many jobs in other industries and businesses such as veterinarians, feed manufacturers and retailers, construction jobs, concrete manufacturing, real estate, farm machinery and equipment manufacturing, truck transportation, financial institutions, plus jobs in technology, so the list goes on. Which means one in five Iowans are supported by agriculture; one out of every 12 are supported by the pork industry, alone!
That agricultural success has brought more choices for us all at the grocery stores and at the dinner table. In addition to being high in protein and rich in many vitamins and minerals, lean pork is an excellent addition to a healthy diet.
It’s all good news for Iowans, since Iowans love meat. According to the 2018 Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index®, more than 9 in 10 (95 percent) Iowa grocery shoppers say their households eat meat at least weekly. Did you know you can get 10 pounds of bacon from a 215-pound pig? But, since Americans eat an average of 18 pounds of bacon per year, there goes the "one pig per person" model of agriculture!
And, lest we forget: by-products of pigs also play a vital role in maintaining and improving the quality of life, from leather goods, lubricants and linoleum to violin strings, paint brushes and life-saving heart valves for humans.
What is really the biggest threat today for Iowans?
We have pigs, we have jobs, we have healthy choices at the grocery store. We have a better way of life than our great-grandparents could’ve ever imagined, and if we all act responsibly, it works.
What do we have too much of in Iowa these days that bothers everyone and threatens our health? Mosquitoes! More people die from mosquito-borne illnesses every year than car crashes and cancer combined! Thanks to record-setting rains and floods, entomologists say we’ll have a bumper crop of mosquitoes in Iowa this year. Mosquitoes carry a host of health threats including West Nile virus, dengue, and Jamestown Canyon virus. So, instead of wringing your hands about agriculture or trying to figure out the math on manure, maybe we should all just agree that mosquitoes are bad.And while we’re at it, let’s add raccoons to the threat list in Iowa. It turns out the strange scat in my backyard wasn’t from a cougar; it was from a huge raccoon. And, unlike pig poo, there is absolutely no value to raccoon poo. Raccoons carry diseases and pose a real threat to our pets. Now, if we could just figure out a way to have the mosquitoes chase away raccoons…
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