Steakonomics - Advantages and Disadvantages of Livestock Expansion in Nebraska


Trading the hills of Virginia, for the wide open countryside, Steve Wolfe was drawn to a state whose potential for livestock may be unparalleled.

"Looked west and found a lot of opportunity in Nebraska," Wolfe said.

He's sold on all the state offers livestock producers.

"Nebraska has a lot of advantages over other states, and water is clearly the number one advantage. Any livestock industry there's a lot of advantage in Nebraska."

Seventeen years after Wolfden Dairy set up near Kearney, you won't find many others who have followed.

"Since then, things have changed," Wolfe said. "A lot of it is local zoning, you've got a lot more people out there to persuade you're doing the right thing."

Many enjoy meat, eggs, and cheese, but what smells like money to some, stinks to others.

"Can't send your kids outside to play, can't have your windows open at night. We were here first. It's nothing to put next to a town," a Ravenna resident told NTV in 2007.

A cattle proposal in Buffalo County upset many. Steve Wolfe was just an observer in the process, but heard the complaints from the public.

He said, "Unfortunately, they hear the bad stuff. There's a lot of good out there. Livestock industry has not done a great job in the past on educating the public on what we're doing and all the hoops we jump through to protect everything. We have got to do a better job of being more visible out there."

Livestock producers can invest in high tech systems to protect the air and water, and have all the permits.

But if they don't convince their neighbors, that planning could be for nothing.

Dr. Brad Lubben, an ag policy expert at the University of Nebraska said, "It's not just the regulatory requirements and environmental protections that go with the decision, it's the policy uncertainty of how much can I invest in planning such an activity when I don't for certain the process involved."

In essence, that uncertainty is built into the law. Dr. Ronnie Green, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nebraska said, "In Nebraska, we operate under local control, zoning control, so it's the local governing authority's decision to make to allow in new livestock operations."

Some producers who may want to expand, don't, because they don't want to fight that battle.

"Be denied by county board or something, it gets discouraging and makes it so other individuals don't want to go in and invest that effort," Dr. Larry Van Tassell, a UNL ag economics professor said.

Dairy farms are expanding in South Dakota and Minnesota, states that may be more welcoming than Nebraska.

"That's a possibility," Wolfe said of the perception. "That's why we have to stay on the positive side and show operators looking to move the advantages of Nebraska — feed, water, quality of life."

In Iowa, there's no local zoning of agriculture. Those decisions are made at the state level.

Nebraska values local input, and that's not likely to change.

But there are so–called Livestock Friendly counties. It's not an honorary title, but a way to designate counties that are open to expansion.

For producers, it can remove some fear of the unknown.

Otherwise, Lubben said, "We don't have rules on the books that explicitly state this process leads to certain approval."

Wolfe says Livestock Friendly counties are a great start, but he wants to build on that, working with counties and the state to attract more farmers, where it makes sense.

"We still have the same opportunity in Nebraska, we need to get on board, a lot of it starts with educating the public, consumers, about what we're doing — large livestock confinements," Wolfe said.

Tune in Thursday night for Part 3 of this special report, to see what the economic impact of livestock expansion could be for Nebraska.