The Des Moines Register: Iowa uses satellites to uncover 5,000 previously undetected animal confinements

by Donnelle Eller | Sept. 15, 2017

Gary Netser, a landowner in Iowa County is upset after two small confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were built across the street from his home. Small confinements are not subject to the same distance regulations as large-scale operations. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

Hogs occupy pens at a confinement facility in Ayrshire, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. The facility is operated by New Fashion Pork, which is based out of Minnesota.(Photo: Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

Iowa has about 5,000 more pig confinements and cattle lots across the state than originally believed, a report to the federal government last month shows.

That’s nearly 50 percent more animal feeding operations than the state initially inventoried.

“It’s clearly too easy for confinements to slip under the radar,” said Jess Mazour, an organizer at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “This is an industry that’s gone unchecked.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered the facilities through satellite imagery, used to complete a comprehensive survey required under a 2013 agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2007, Iowa CCI, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project asked the federal government to no longer allow Iowa DNR to regulate hog, cattle and other livestock operations in the state.

To retain oversight, Iowa DNR told the EPA it would increase the state’s inspection of livestock facilities and fully identify the state’s animal feeding operations, among other actions.

Mazour said the large number of unidentified facilities “shows that DNR is not doing its job.

“It doesn’t have the budget. It doesn’t have the staffing, or the appropriate rules and regulations,” she said.

Of the 5,063 facilities discovered through satellite imagery, the state says nearly 1,300 of the newly discovered facilities could require some level of state oversight.

And the state estimates that about half — or 630 facilities — will require on-site inspections, said Ken Hessenius, Iowa DNR’s Spencer office supervisor.

Still, it’s unlikely the operators of the newly discovered facilities violated state law, said Hessenius, who helped compile the state’s report to the EPA.

Iowa DNR believes most of the facilities are too small to require government oversight, under state law.

“If you build a 1,000-head hog facility … you don’t need a state manure management plan. You don’t need a construction design statement or permit,” Hessenius said.

The larger the hog, cattle or dairy facility, the more state requirements a producer must meet. The state’s regulations also include setback distances from neighbors, schools and churches, and major lakes, rivers and drinking water sources.

“I would be surprised if we find a handful — one or two — large” confinement operations through the state’s investigation, Hessenius said.

“The facilities that are large and should be regulated are regulated,” he said. “We might find a couple or a few” large confinements “but by and large, we know about them.”

Mazour disagrees, pointing to the EPA report that indicates about 25 percent of the newly identified facilities are considered medium or large facilities.

Medium-sized facilities get a desktop inspection, and large facilities get on-site inspections, she said.

“DNR doesn’t know,” she said. “The agency is trying to downplay the problems.”

The report to the EPA comes as Iowa CCI and Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., environmental group, have petitioned the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission to strengthen the state’s master matrix, which counties can use to grade local livestock projects.

The groups want higher scores required for approval, more consideration for karst and other unique typography that can make it easy for spills to reach waterways, and greater separation distances.

The commission is expected to consider the petition Monday. DNR staff has recommend against approval.

Mazour said 17 counties seek either changes to the master matrix, a moratorium on new confinement construction or directly support the petition.

County leaders have become more vocal about master matrix shortfalls, after fielding complaints from residents and businesses about odor and concerns about facilities’ impact on water quality.

Environmental groups charge that manure from confinements used to fertilizer Iowa crops contribute to high levels of nitrates that add to toxic algal blooms in Iowa lakes and rivers, and threaten human health and drinking water.

High nutrient levels also contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which grew to about the size of New Jersey this summer, the largest ever measured.

“Three other counties are considering action. That would put us at one-fifth of the counties that say ‘it’s not working for us,'” Mazour said.

“It’s not just urban counties … rural counties that are in the center of the hog facilities and living this are saying ‘no more,'” she said.

Mazour said she’s concern that the state has no information about where millions of gallons of manure are being applied.

Farmers, however, have economic reasons to make sure that manure is applied correctly, Hessenius said.

“Manure is a valuable resource,” he said. “If I have an 80-acre farm, with fertilizer running about $200 an acre, economics say I will use it properly.”

Despite the controversy over regulations, the number of animal feeding operations continues to grow in Iowa, with the state on pace to add another 200 facilities this year, about the same number as last year.

Iowa CCI and other environmental groups have said two new large pork processing plants in Iowa are driving the state’s hog confinement expansion.

Seaboard Triumph Foods began pork production this month at its $300 million plant in Sioux City. And Prestage Foods is building a $240 million plant near Clarion in northwest Iowa. It’s expected to open in 2019.

Both plants expect to initially employ about 1,000 workers.

Iowa confinement regulations


New confinements with more than 2,500 pigs apply for a state construction permit — a more stringent requirement than federal law — that state engineers review. Producers building a confinement for 1,250 to 2,500 pigs must submit a construction design statement to the county outlining the standards they’ll use. All producers building confinements for 1,250 pigs or more are required to have manure management plans. Most small producers are not required to meet those requirements.


The state restricts how close animal confinements can be to homes, schools and other areas. Larger facilities require more distance than smaller ones. For example, new confinements with fewer than 1,250 pigs can build next door to a neighbor. Confinements with fewer than 2,500 hogs in a rural setting require 1,250 feet of separation around them. Confinements must be 500 feet from a water source, such as a well, and 1,000 feet from a major water source.

Master matrix

Counties can provide input into approval of large confinements through a master matrix. Every facility must meet minimum requirements, but producers can choose from 44 items actions that “go above and beyond” the basic requirements to gain county approval. Producers who fail to get a passing score can ask the state Department of Natural Resources for a review. Those who fail to get DNR approval can appeal to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.