The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for Iowa’s agricultural economy, and it could get a lot worse. We need to be seriously thinking about what changes are needed so that we can be more resilient and prepared for what could be even greater challenges in the future.

Take Iowa’s pork industry for instance. I worry that Iowa has far too many pigs and that we could be setting ourselves up for a catastrophe. I have concerns on many fronts including pig and human health, environmental and climate health, along with soil health, which is Iowa’s most precious resource.

I worry that Iowa’s huge confinement production models with nearly 25 million pigs at any given time is not only a potential threat for new viruses affecting pigs, but also for new variant influenza viruses that could affect people as well. The deadly African swine flu virus devastated China over the last two years, losing 60% of their hogs. Worldwide, a quarter of the world’s pigs died.

So far, we have been able to keep this virus out of our country, and we don’t have to worry about people getting sick from it, but we do have to worry about bringing it to Iowa’s pigs by people. It can be transmitted on clothing, vehicles, feed and processed pork from countries that have had it. It can also spread by ticks infecting wild boars, which are on the rise in many states in the form of feral pigs.

It could be a ticking time bomb unless an effective vaccine can be produced soon.

I have been raising hogs for well over 50 years. Since 2003, we have been doing it certified organic and GAP, which stands for compliance with the Global Animal Partnership guidelines for animal welfare.

I worry that our water and soil and climate is being adversely affected by too many pigs. Why worry about our water and soil? It has been well documented that too much manure can raise the nitrate levels in our water and is a factor in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is now bigger than the state of New Jersey. Iowa alone contributes over 40% of this yearly occurrence due to soil and fertilizer run-off.

What does manure have to do with our climate? Most of Iowa’s hog manure is in the form of a liquid. This liquid produces a great deal of methane which is produced by the anaerobic bacteria that live in it. Most of us are well aware with our noses about the other gases that liquid manure pits produce in the form of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, being 104 times more potent than CO2 in the first two decades after its release. While it is true that the utilization of methane digesters in confinements could capture that methane and make it usable as an alternative energy source, it is a very expensive proposition for large units. They can cost from $500,000 to $5 million dollars depending on the size and technologies used.

I am challenging the pork industry to consider another doable and practical way to lessen methane and improve Iowa’s soil quality, and mitigate at least one important facet of agriculture’s contribution to climate change. I am challenging the pork industry to move toward a solid system of manure storage and begin to compost that valuable soil quality resource.

This would require using straw bedding of some kind to serve as the carbon source for the bacteria and other micro-organisms that would break down the essential nutrients in the manure into a stable form that would stay put in our soil.

We have been composting nearly 100% of our hog, cattle and poultry manure on our 700-hundred-acre organic farm since 1983.

There could be so many other benefits to using straw for bedding as well. Iowa could rediscover that elusive third crop that we need so desperately to improve the diversity of crop rotations to break weed and pest cycles and reduce the need for pesticides in our mono crops of corn and soy. This third crop would come in the form of many different winter and early spring annuals such as oats, winter hybrid rye, barley, wheat and field peas. These grains could be used in the swine ration as they are all excellent feed ingredients.

Farmers claim that it is not profitable to grow oats and other small grains. Agronomist Matt Liebman’s research at Iowa State University has clearly shown that a rotation including small grains and a legume hay or cover crop along with corn and soy can be more profitable than just corn and soy. It is encouraging to note that Tyson Foods and the Practical Farmers of Iowa have begun to support farmers to do just that with a cooperative incentive agreement to grow oats.

The use of solid straw bedding would reduce most of the revolting smell that goes along with liquid manure. Think of what that could mean for neighbors and communities that have to put up with that. The smell of hog confinements and liquid manure has had negative impacts in farming neighborhoods and Iowa’s rural communities for over 60 years. It has negatively impacted our quality of life.

We could have avoided much of that heartache and headache if we had insisted on different production and manure handling systems.

Solid manure systems and composting would work particularly well in grower and finisher units and in group housing gestation units. Scrapers and skid-loaders could handle it on a large scale. It can be done economically if the industry is willing to do it.

First, it needs to be willing to admit that there is a big problem now that could be mitigated to lessen climate change and improve Iowa’s water and soil quality.

Iowa has to question how many hogs it can safely have for the mitigation of potential devastating viruses.

Raising hogs has been a race to the bottom for most of this century with more and more vertical integration and low prices that try to squeeze every penny out of a very low-priced pig for anyone that raises hogs independently. If we are honest about what needs to be done to address the “big picture” questions that face all of us in how we produce food, then just perhaps we can begin to change and improve our preparedness for what will face us in the years ahead.

Ron Rosmann and his wife Maria farm near Harlan in southwest Iowa with their sons and their families.