Livestock Coalition Lends a Helping Hand

A new organization was launched to help grow new and existing livestock enterprises in Iowa, and navigate regulations and siting. Despite rumors to the contrary, Iowa's hog industry is alive and well, stable and growing, according to the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers (CSIF). Rex Hoppes, organization director for the Des Moines-based CSIF, says he sees resurgence in the state's hog industry.

A new organization was launched to help grow new and existing livestock enterprises in Iowa, and navigate regulations and siting.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Iowa's hog industry is alive and well, stable and growing, according to the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers (CSIF).

Rex Hoppes, organization director for the Des Moines-based CSIF, says he sees resurgence in the state's hog industry. “Probably 90% or more of the work that we do is dealing directly or indirectly with pork production and those farmers wanting to build buildings — either independent farmers or contract growers for integrators.”

Crop farmers with experience in hogs are returning to the business, often driven by young family members interested in coming back to the farm, he says. Custom finishing creates an opportunity for this generation.

Most common are 2,400- and 4,800-head contract finishing sites on a small acreage and a 10- to 12-year bank note, building equity and retaining valuable manure nutrients, Hoppes says.

Explosive Growth

Colin Johnson, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension program specialist, spends about half his time on CSIF activities, mostly educating beginning farmers on how to site hog barns.

“We are seeing a tremendous number of barns built in the past year on the finishing side, providing opportunities for young people in pork production that probably haven't existed in about 10 years,” he says.

The average age of Iowa farmers is about 57, meaning that many of their children are near 30. Most are sons who've been working for other farmers or in town, because there wasn't enough income for two families, Johnson says.

Starting Out

Young hog farmer Andy Muff, 28, of Ventura, IA, is a slightly different case in point. He was raised on his family's small farrow-to-finish farm and attended ISU for four years with an emphasis on farm business management.

During high school and college, he ran a small hog and cattle operation that paid for his education.

After college, he helped his dad, while also working for a variety of different hog production companies.

The family hog operation involved farrowing until about 10 years ago, then evolved to feeding out hogs. About three years ago, his dad turned more responsibility over to Andy.

Muff decided the financial risk of remaining independent was too high, so he turned to contract production. At the home farm, he built one, 1,000-head confinement nursery, and converted the open-front finishers into small nurseries, for another 3,000 pig spaces.

Muff contacted CSIF and Johnson to help him investigate building his own contract finishing operation to match up with the contract nursery facilities at his parent's hog farm.

He says CSIF and Johnson expertly guided him through the regulatory and financial processes. He acquired 10 acres of land near the family farm, sited for two, 1,200-head grow-finish barns, finished last October. In the process, he nearly doubled the setbacks from the required 1,250 ft. to the nearest residence, and the location is 5,400 ft. to the nearest water source.

Odor modeling designed by ISU determined the site was fine (see sidebar). “The ISU work on odors really gave us a general platform to go to some neighbors to tell them that yes, there will be some hog odors, but the odor detection rate determined by the model means the odors will be weak.”

Muff receives pigs from Canada at his home nursery weighing 11-12-lb. At 40-50 lb., those pigs are transported to his finishing site.

Community Involvement

Muff admits disclosing personal and financial information about his hog business was tough, but it's helped him become better known and more accepted in the Ventura community.

“It changed our mindset and made us better producers. I can't give CSIF and Johnson enough credit in helping with everything from getting the loan to help with understanding contracts, banking, land, manure and hog odors.”

And there was another valuable lesson. A neighbor learned about his hog site before last October's open house, and before he could talk to neighbors. “The neighbor, who didn't know the facts, formed his own opinion and the next thing I knew, I read in the newspaper that I was building a 25,000-head finishing site,” recalls Muff. The coalition guided him on how to talk to the press and the neighbors.

Surprising Opposition

Wendell Davison of Garner, IA, was a 150-sow, farrow-to-finish producer until about 11 years ago, when he shifted to contract finishing. He started with two, 1,200-head finishers, then added several more, all close to the home farm.

He partnered with a production company 2½ years ago to contract finish. Then he built a 4,800-head, wean-to-finish site in partnership with his eldest son, who is finishing college at ISU this year, for a total of 11,000 finishing spaces.

The last building project was a mile away from home. “We just assumed that we weren't going to have any problems, but we found out otherwise when one individual started a petition drive.”

CSIF's Rex Hoppes provided valuable help, advising him to “be as forthcoming as you can about your plans,” Davison recounts.

In Davison's case, he endured the pain of going through a public hearing process, even though his latest venture met all of the state regulations for siting and setback.

Coalition's Goals

CSIF Executive Director Aaron Putze says the group has assisted more than 700 farm families, including 410 hog farmers, to provide educational outreach, enhance consumer awareness of progressive livestock farming, empower livestock farmers to speak out about their occupation and hold opponents accountable.

“It's a new day out there, and I think there are a lot of good reasons why neighbors have different expectations, and why farm families need to have different expectations as far as the importance of visiting with neighbors and communicating their intentions,” he says.

CSIF launched its “Good Neighbors Building Trust” campaign last November, the centerpiece of which is a 16-minute DVD that walks through everything a farm family needs to know to grow their livestock farms responsibly and successfully, Putze says.

Both city and rural residents are more mobile today, meaning that clashes and conflicts can surface over livestock production, he says.

CSIF was formed in late 2004 to help mitigate problems between the two groups. Also, an increasing number of farm families have expressed frustration over trying to navigate the ever-changing rules and regulations governing livestock in Iowa, Putze adds.

Producers also want help with networking opportunities, notes Hoppes, from commodity pork production to direct marketing and niche pork production strategies.

Putze and new CSIF field specialist Megan Ritter agree that farmers are increasingly seeing the value of public relations as being just as important as farming practices.

“Only 3.8% of Iowa's population farms, meaning that the other 96.2% doesn't farm, so you have quite an audience that needs to learn about what farmers do,” Putze explains.

Hoppes dispels siting fallacies about Iowa agriculture. “The big rumor around the pork industry is that Iowa is no place to put sows,” he says, noting there are many great locations left, especially in southern Iowa, provided the necessary steps are taken.

“Sometimes we have to tell farmers they don't have a good location for a new barn site,” Ritter notes.

“Or there are folks who've called for help after construction has started, or their barns are completed, and maybe they've made mistakes in siting, and we've chosen not to try and help those folks,” Hoppes stresses.

Odor Assessment Tool

Iowa State University's (ISU) Community Assessment Model provides a scientific siting tool to help identify the best places for proposed swine facilities, according to Colin Johnson, Iowa Pork Industry Center Extension program specialist.

Iowa has specified minimum separation distances for livestock and poultry operations depending on the number of animal units. But when it comes to odor transport, distance is not equal in all directions.

“The model basically takes into account wind patterns and orientation of the barn, plus animal inventory,” says Johnson, along with distances to public sites, including neighbors.

The computer model developed by ISU agricultural engineer Steve Hoff uses that data to formulate the total hours of potential odor exposure. Hours of odor exposure are reported for three odor concentrations: 2:1, 7:1 and 15:1.

An odor concentration of 2:1 means that it would take two volumes of fresh air mixed with one volume of odorous air to make the odor “barely detectable.”

Modeling is conducted for the period from March to October because that is when more people are outdoors, humidity is higher and predominant southerly winds result in more hog odor problems.

The model does not cover topography or changes in elevation of the land, says Johnson. Trees and shrubs, planted 100 to 150 ft. from barns, can have a great impact in reducing odor levels and visually blocking the public view of barns to reduce attention, he adds.