I found it lurking behind the air conditioner in our backyard; was it evidence that the wayward cougar spotted weeks ago in Des Moines was still around? The scat 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 No. 1 when it comes to No. 2.” (June 15 REVIEW)
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.
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 Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 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. 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 an acidic waste product. Dog poop has bacteria and parasites. Bad as that sounds, human waste is even worse.
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 U.S. Department of Agriculture 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 population of Iowa. Today, farmers raise 22.7 million pigs and that agricultural success has put Iowa on the globe.
Daniel Andersen, ISU animal production systems engineer, says we should be 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 30.6 million acres devoted to farmland, which is 85.6 percent of Iowa’s land area. Today, only 25 percent of that farmland can be supported through manure. He says farmers could double hog production and still have the capacity to handle the manure. That need makes Iowa uniquely suited for agriculture and, specifically, livestock farming.
Numbers matter. It’s why Andersen also was 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 first to 14th.
It’s not just about manure. 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. It’s why one in five Iowans are supported by agriculture; one out of every 12 are supported by the pork industry, alone!
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. 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.
Laurie Johns is public relations manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau. She may be reached at email@example.com.