(Photos by Gabe Licht)
"The Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate barns, but we have no data to say what's normal," Mindy Spiehs, of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, told about 20 people gathered at Ron Christensen's feedlot near Royal on Thursday. "So, commodity groups got together and said, 'We're going to fund research so you have good data.'"
Spiehs' agency is working with South Dakota State University and Iowa State University Extension Outreach to collect that data by monitoring the air quality at four feedlots in Iowa and South Dakota.
Before the two-year study began, the only available data of monoslope buildings came from the hottest portion of Texas during the hottest time of year, said ISU Extension Field Specialist Kris Kohl.
"Typically, emissions are highest when it's hot," Spiehs said. "Taking data from the hottest area in Texas at the hottest time and applying it everywhere is not right."
Ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, greenhouse gases and particulate matter are all being monitored. Preliminary results show increasing levels of hydrogen sulfite and ammonia, due to the use of dry distillers grains -- an ethanol byproduct -- as a primary feed. Spiehs also pointed out a baseline study of the effects of a strict hay and silage diet is not available.
The study at Christensen's site will conclude in September and official data will be available in about a year, at which time the EPA and industry will be able to respond.
"If air quality is bad, we need to know so we can make adjustments," Spiehs said. "We are looking at things so we can give management tools for producers to use. If producers are going to be regulated, we want them to be regulated fairly."
Christensen hopes that will be the case in an industry with many variables.
"Mother Nature has ways to throw us curves every now and again. Whether you're raising cattle or crops, you understand that," Christensen said. "The people writing the rules, I don't think they understand that. ... I don't think there are rules that can handle everything Mother Nature throws at us."
On the topic of such rules, Christensen gave the example of a required one-inch gap for the draining of rainwater, which he noted could be plugged easily.
He also clarified he has never seen it rain inside his facility, which is not the case in two sites being tested in Watertown, S.D. Those facilities are also closed more often than the local site.
"I leave it open as much as possible," Christensen said. "I try letting as much air go through as possible."
Currently, the air moving south to north through the facility is providing important data. While it is yet to be seen what that data will say, ISU Extension Beef Specialist Beth Doran is among those looking forward to the results.