The Iowa Department of Natural Resources turned 30 on July 1st, and one of the issues that has generated a lot of controversy has been large-scale animal confinement operations.
DNR director Chuck Gipp says one of the things that’s brought the issue to the forefront is the change in the number of people involved in raising livestock.
“Part of it is the demographics that are living out in the countryside. Used to be as a kid when I was growing up, that the vast majority of people living out in the country in the unincorporated areas were people involved in agriculture. Today that is not the case,” according to Gipp. He says people who are not involved in agriculture are more likely to raise concerns about farm smells, the operation of grain dryers and other things that come with an ag operation.
There’s also been a change in how animals are raised, as he says in the 1990s there were mostly open feed lots where animals were raised and the manure was out on the ground. “Most of that was runoff, because there was no machinery there was not equipment and there were no facilities to capture all of the manure, including the liquid portion of it,” Gipp says. “And rain was your friend. It took that off, so it was runoff.” He says the animal confinement operations led to more animals being raised, but also more control on the waste the animals produced.
“In 1990 there were 14.1 million hogs grown in the state and 2015 there’s 20 million hogs. Prior to confinement operations becoming the norm and way to do that, those 14.1 million pigs were generating waste, a lot of which wasn’t captured and became runoff into the rivers and streams,” Gipp says. “Other than the odor issue there — other than the siting decisions made by some — actually the way we raise livestock today is much more environmentally friendly than it ever has been.”
Gipp says the DNR has to manage the issue without taking sides. “I think the biggest challenge is always going to be to find that middle ground to do what you need to do, regardless of who controls the legislature or anything like that, the department has a job and a responsibility to the people of Iowa to provide opportunities for the long run,” Gipp says. Gipp says if everyone has to take a role in making things work in protecting the state’s natural resources.
“We have to understand no matter who we are what we do. If the combined effort of somebody if they are rich or poor, rural or urban, or big and small. If they all work together to determine what happens on their particular piece of property, the combined effort of everybody doing a little bit, no matter what their condition is, is going to be immense. Rather than waiting for the other guy to be the solution — let’s just determine what we can do,” Gipp says.
He says getting everyone on board is not always easy. “Having that type of thinking process, how all of us individually can impact our surroundings, I think our the biggest challenge that we face,” Gipp says, “not only in the department, but across government in general.” The DNR was created by combining four agencies in 1986. Gipp has led the department for the last five years.