Proposed CAFO rules won't protect Iowans or the environment

Wally Taylor is the Legal Chair of the Sierra Club Iowa chapter. He wrote this essay after attending the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ virtual public hearing about the new Chapter 65 regulations on February 19.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been revising its regulations for animal feeding operations as dictated by Governor Kim Reynolds’ Executive Order 10, issued in early 2023.

Chapter 65 of the Iowa administrative code has long contained confusing and inadequate rules, which are open to manipulation by livestock producers and the DNR.

The DNR tried to revise the regulations recently to provide more protection for Iowa’s waters in areas of karst terrain. But the governor’s “Administrative Rules Coordinator” Nate Ristow blocked the proposed rule, because it would not reduce the “regulatory burden” on livestock producers.

The purpose of this agency’s administrative rules should be to protect Iowa’s people and the environment, not to reduce the regulatory burden. But livestock producers and the Iowa Farm Bureau complained that increased protection in areas of karst would have “unintended consequences,” without explaining what those consequences might be.

In fact, the unintended consequences of not having adequate protection in areas of karst would be the pollution of our rivers and streams and groundwater.

Aside from allowing insufficient protection from livestock operations in karst terrain, the proposed Chapter 65 rules flout the Iowa Code section that requires manure storage structures be covered to minimize odor. So the rules state that a manure pit under a confinement building is covered by a slatted floor over the pit, even though the odor comes up through the slats and is blown out of the building by big fans.

The rules also allow what is effectively a confinement operation to be considered an open feedlot, with the less rigorous rules granted to an open feedlot. The legislature defined an open feedlot as an operation that is unroofed or partially roofed. The intent was that the cattle would be in a fenced in open area with a structure where they could seek shelter in inclement weather.

But the DNR’s rules allow an operation where the buildings are at least 10 percent unroofed to be an open feedlot. As a result, CAFO operators construct buildings with unroofed feedbunks, constituting 10 percent of the square footage. But the cattle never leave the building.

The Chapter 65 rules also allow construction of a livestock operation in a flood plain in some instances. That would put Iowa’s water resources at risk.

There is more, but you get the point. The governor’s Executive Order 10 makes the rulemaking process a sham. If Reynolds can stop a rule on a whim even before it is presented to the public, what is the sense in having public comment?

And if the governor’s intent is to reduce regulatory burden, the rules will not adequately protect the public. This is just another example of Reynolds’ dictatorial control, aided and abetted by the Iowa legislature.

Is this really what Iowans voted for? If so, why? If not, we need to make our voices heard in November.

Top photo of Iowa Supreme Beef confinement courtesy of the Sierra Club.

About the Author(s)

Wally Taylor

  • This is bigger than Iowa

    Eating too much meat is one consequence of food policies that have made us unhealthy. Our BMIs grew, our life expectancies went down.

    Wally rightly points out environmental harm and nuisances caused by feedlots. Iowa Republicans however are just little soldiers in this. Washington pours 40 billions USD a year into Iowa farms. Tying these subsidies to health and sustainability would be a game changer.

  • Each of us has some control over this

    In a more compassionate world, feedlot operations would be banned because they trash our environment and cause immense suffering to animals. Fortunately, each of us can fight this by reducing meat consumption and purchasing meat produced by small farms.

  • we cannot change a system of this scale with our measly consumption choices

    this is indeed what people voted for when they elected the Gov and her wrecking crew as pushing meat was one of their talking points, Iowa is a sacrifice zone for major international corporations, market makers, and their politicians and we will need the feds to help us to slow the destruction which among other things will mean getting rid of Vilsack and expanding the Supreme Court…

  • Dirk is right

    If a family decides to eat healthy food, it is not going to change much. There is more leverage with schools. Many Iowa K-12 schools have no real kitchen and just reheat processed food with lots of low-quality meat. Kids also are not given enough time to eat at lunch so they develop unhealthy eating habits and sleep through their afternoon classes. It is up to us to let our schoolboards know.

  • Dismissing the importance of individual choices isn't helpful

    If it were up to me, I would make fixes to our food system, school-lunch programs, as suggested by others in this discussion. However, my powers are limited to voting for political candidates who appear to care, and trying to live in a way that causes the least amount of harm (while acknowledging I could do better).

    I teach a discussion-based college environmental biology class, and students regularly communicate how powerless they feel to change a system that in their view is stacked against them. I follow advice of wise people and advocate that we feel empowered when we actively reject that which is wrong. This gives us hope and some energy to keep fighting the good fight.

    As an example, I replaced my urban lawn with native plants in an attempt to provide wildlife with habitat. A neighbor told me that my small wildlife refuge makes no difference in fixing climate change, etc.. However, it does make a difference to the birds and the fox that can now use my yard for food and cover, and makes me feel better because I did something to enhance biodiversity instead of simply complain about its disappearance. Similarly, I’m sure CAFOs are harmed when I adopt a vegetarian diet, even if the effect is very minor.

  • you're just wrong about the CAFOs they are increasing in number, density, and size

    I don’t know what discussion based teaching is but hopefully it doesn’t prize feeling better by ignoring reality. If the question is (and in this post it is) how to change markets so to stop this kind of destructive political-economy we need solutions that make differences that make a difference.
    How do you even think about environmental studies without grasping how vital scale and context are?
    ps If we can give a (literal) moments respite to some critter then of course we should but they can’t live in the boundaries of a yard…

  • Thank you, Tim S.

    I appreciate what you wrote. And thank you again, Wally Taylor, for your good work.

    Since the importance of voting was part of this post, general credit for Iowa’s craven political obedience to industrial agriculture should also be given to Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.  The Iowa voters who put him in office were voting for a continuation of status-quo massive environmental damage caused by agriculture. Iowa is getting what they voted for.

  • Thank you PrairieFan....

    ……for your kindness.

  • Mike Naig

    Prairie Fan is right. Mike Naig is a big part of the problem. I didn’t intentionally leave him out. But my article was focused on the rulemaking process for the DNR rules.

  • Wally, of course you are quite right...

    … that there was no reason to talk about Mike Naig in your post. I wrote my comment mostly because your post appropriately pointed out the importance of voting. I wanted to call a little attention to Iowans’ ability to vote for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. The person who holds that office has more power in regard to clean water and healthy landscapes than some Iowans seem to realize.