Alternative Systems for Livestock in Nebraska

Final Report for LNC98-144

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $98,200.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $49,850.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Wyatt Fraas
Center for Rural Affairs
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Project Information


This project documents and demonstrates alternative production systems for livestock in Nebraska. The project recruits farmers/ranchers who are practicing environmentally sound livestock systems in order to document the economics of their systems and to make presentations about them. Ten farms/ranches were interviewed in four Extension districts. Sixteen presentation events were held, reaching more than 950 attendees. Audiences included farmers/ranchers, researchers and Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agency staff, lenders, and local decisionmakers.
Participants noted need for inclusion of crop enterprises and marketing alternatives in addition to data on livestock enterprises.


Livestock represent a convergence of environmental, economic and political issues in the Midwest. Concern over air and water quality, shrinking profits for livestock farmers, and legal challenges to siting of large livestock facilities are all pushing farmers and ranchers to question how and whether they can continue to raise livestock.

Alternative production systems address many of these concerns for both farmers and their neighbors. Yet farmers, researchers, rural citizens, and community leaders are often unaware both of the alternatives to large-scale, technology-intensive livestock systems, and of the benefits of those alternatives to local economies, environmental quality, and farm profits.

This project will raise the level of knowledge and understanding of successful alternative systems for livestock available to farmers/ranchers, Extension Educators, researchers, lenders, and county officials in Nebraska. We will identify successful farmers, document and demonstrate alternative livestock systems, and publish the results to allow widespread adoption of these systems.

The primary grantee, the Center for Rural Affairs, is a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening communities in rural America. Located in northeast Nebraska, it has 25 years of experience working with farmers/ranchers to build strong rural economies based on stewardship of the land, preserving natural resources, ethical treatment of animals, and improving the quality of life for rural people.

Literature Review

Numerous alternatives exist to conventional systems. These systems can address the economic, environmental and social questions raised by farmers, their neighbors, and economic developers.

*An Iowa researcher identified opportunities for environmental, economic and social improvements for hog production in manure management, housing, feed, and other areas (Honeyman 1990). One example is low?cost hoop structures that use deep bedding. This system allows composting of hog waste within the structure, which stabilizes the nutrients in a solid form that reduces odor and the potential for runoff or infiltration into groundwater. These structures also require less capital investment but return comparable profits to confinement facilities (Brumm et al 1997). Pasture?based systems can further reduce odor, nutrient management, and facility cost prob?lems (McNabney 1990).

*Dairy farmers cite low profits, hard work, and no replacements as reasons to quit milking. But alternatives such as grass?based dairying can cut feed costs by 25?50% (feed costs comprise half of milk production expense), ease the high physical labor demands of manure handling, reduce the capital costs for feed harvest, storage and handling, and often increase profits enough to allow hiring help or bringing a young farmer into the operation (Tranel 1995; USDA NRCS 1996).

*Alternative facilities such as hoop houses or portable milking parlors can also reduce capital investment costs, making it possible for beginning farmers with limited capital to start dairy and hog enterprises. In addition, pasture?based systems also reduce the acreage of grain production, and provide an alternative use for environmentally sensitive land, which reduce soil erosion and pesticide use (Leibhardt 1993).

Farmers are actively searching for such options that solve their environmental and economic concerns. An Iowa conference on options for small and moderate size swine producers attracted over 150 farmers. A follow?up survey found that 65% of respondents had already changed their management or production practices as a result of the conference (Pirog 1997).

But these alternatives are new and farmers are not familiar with them nor aware of their benefits. The current state of knowledge is represented by popular press articles with minimal economic or environmental analysis, for both farmers and researchers (Holder 1997, Howe 197).

Communities are also searching for options. The hog industry has become a major environmental and social issue in much of the rural Midwest, with the major newspapers providing daily news coverage of the conflict between the warring parties (Wees 1997) as citizens concerned about environmental quality and the future of family farming are fighting to keep out mega hog operations, while those promoting economic growth are fighting to bring them in (Anderson 1997). The dairy industry has not yet been the focus of similar conflict, but economic developers are recruiting large dairy operations (Mooney 1997) with similar environmental attributes as mega hog operations. Rural Nebraska counties are rushing to implement zoning regulations to limit development of potentially polluting facilities (Anderson 1997), but can fail to distinguish between mega hog operations and the moderate sized innovations now developing. For example, Madison County recently reacted to citizen concerns over odor and water pollution by turning down a request for construction of several small hoop structures for hogs (Warrick, Robert (Madison Co. Zoning Commission), personal communication).

Livestock production systems that support moderate sized farms provide demonstrable benefits to agriculturally dependent communities. A Virginia study compared adding a mega hog operation to adding an equal number of hogs on ten smaller farms. It found 10% more permanent jobs, 37% increase in per capita income, and 20% more increase in retail sales from the smaller farms (Thornsbury et al, undated). Communities sited among smaller farms can benefit socially as well, with higher rates of political participation and higher quality of public services (Goldschmit 1978). This relationship also holds for owner?operated farms compared to absentee owner/hired labor farms (such as mega hog farms): higher incomes, more social stability, and higher quality schools, local governments and commercial services (MacCannell 1983).

Farmers rely on other farmers for information they trust. As they search for site-specific information with a minimum of risk and a maximum of relevance to their farms, they are increasingly relying on their own on?farm research (Strange and Miller 1994) and on the testimony of their neighbors (Dansingburg and DeVore 1995).

Project Objectives:
  1. Recruit farmers who are using alternative systems for livestock production and management.
    Document the economic effects of alternative systems for livestock production and management.
    Inform farmer/ranch operators and agriculture support personnel of the cost, operation and performance of alternative livestock systems.


Materials and methods:

The project identified alternative livestock systems and the farmers/ranchers who are using them. We found these systems through a search of local, regional, and national sustainable agriculture organizations, publications and websites.

We recruited farmer/rancher cooperators to participate in case-study evaluations of their livestock systems. These case studies documented the economic performance of the specific innovations. An agricultural economist conducted the economic data collection.

We conducted at least one workshop and/or demonstration in four of Nebraska's five Extension regions. These sessions featured at least one farmer/rancher and his/her alternative practices. We coordinated a workshop (with several presenters) with the 1999 International Society for Range Management/American Forage and Grassland Council meeting in Omaha.

Research results and discussion:

Progress includes recruitment of farmers/ranchers for collection of case-study information, documentation of management effects, and informing audiences through presentations of alternative production systems.


Ten farms participated in livestock practice economics interviews. These were in the following locations and topic areas:
Grass-based dairy
Cattle grazing standing corn
Sows on pasture

West Central:
Grass-based dairy
Rotational grazing of cattle
Cattle grazing standing corn
Pastured poultry

Rotational grazing of cattle and sheep
Pastured poultry
Dry dairy grazing

South Central:
Cattle grazing standing corn

Document effects

An agricultural economist and graduate assistants from University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) designed a data collection protocol and interviewed the participating farmers/ranchers. We found that farmers/ranchers have few years of experience with these livestock systems and are constantly changing the details of their practices. These systems are often embedded in whole-farm management systems and recordkeeping, which made extraction of specific economic data difficult. Many of the participating farms/ranches agreed to keep the specific records requested by the ag economist overseeing the data collection. Results of those efforts are attached.

Informing audiences

We took advantage of several opportunities to reach large audiences in additional to local workshops and farm presentations.

Six farmers/ranchers agreed to make presentations at the joint national meeting of the Society for Range Management/American Forage and Grassland Council in Omaha in January, 1999 (southeast Nebraska area). Due to inclement weather, four actually presented: bison grazing and tourism; finishing cattle on standing corn; gestating sows on pasture and crop residue; and rotational grazing/legume interseeding of warm-season grasses. The audience included researchers, agency staff and farmers/ranchers from across the country.

Six presentations on alternative beef production and marketing systems were made in April, 1999, at a workshop cosponsored with Nebraska Department of Agriculture and Nebraska Cattlemen's Association. Topics included production quality standards for marketing cooperatives, direct marketing cattle from the farm, USDA inspection rules for direct marketing, and partnering with meat processors. One hundred twenty farmers and ranchers attended in Kearney, Nebraska (south central Nebraska area).

Twelve presentations on alternative livestock production and marketing systems were included in the August, 1999, Alternative Agriculture Expo in Sioux City, Iowa (northeast Nebraska area). Two hundred farmers and ranchers attended from Nebraska and three other states. Topics included bison and elk ranching, pastured poultry, management-intensive grazing, alternative beef and meat marketing, finishing cattle on grass, and hogs on pasture. One attendee from a county planning office came specifically to hear about alternatives to livestock confinement systems. Center for Rural Affairs and UNL Extension partners assisted with planning this event.

Dairy tours were very popular and were held several times. In addition to presentations by the farmers on their grass-based production systems, we added presentations by a dairy consultant on two of the farms. Topics included dairy barn design, work-in contracts for young farmers, grass and cattle management, use of NRCS EQIP cost-share for fencing/watering systems, pasture seeding mixtures, and dairy breeds for grazing.

Farm tours included:
- fence and water design with EQIP assistance for management-intensive grazing
- alternative milk house design for pasture-based dairy
- low-labor poultry production on pasture
- management of irrigated pasture
- cattle and grass management for pasture-based dairy

Workshops included:
- certified organic dairy production
- linking poultry production and direct marketing
- alternative pork production
- rotational grazing
- commercial rabbit production

Research conclusions:

This project made several audiences aware of alternative livestock production systems. Farmers/ranchers learned the new production techniques or new crops and markets, and who to ask for more information. Lenders learned the feasibility of new practices and the economics of new crops. Researchers learned the practices that farmers are using and the problems that reduce their production efficiency. Decisionmakers learned that environmentally and socially sound livestock production practices are possible and available for their communities. As a result of this project's presentations, an undetermined number of these audience members have tried, adopted or encouraged the practices targeted at workshops and tours.

Economic Analysis

Economic data was collected from the participating farms and ranches but proved to be of limited use beyond the specific operation, and two of the operations eventually provided no usable economic data. We found that farmers/ranchers have few years of experience with these livestock systems and are constantly changing the details of their practices. These systems are often embedded in whole-farm management systems and recordkeeping, which has made extraction of specific economic data difficult. Data from participants (without names) is attached.

Farmer Adoption

This project made farmers/ranchers aware of alternative livestock production systems. Part of this process included discussion of production systems; another part included discussion of marketing options. For example, discussions with a dairy grazing consultant moved five dairymen closer to certified organic milk production. Grass-based dairying would be a necessary economic component to certifying their milk as organic, but they would not even consider such a move unless a premium market for milk was available. Their discussions with the consultant made them aware of the existing and potential markets, certification requirements, and historic prices for organic milk.
In another example, we assisted a group of farmers in south central Nebraska to form a marketing cooperative for natural beef. A grocery retailer wanted to purchase their beef, and we provided information on production systems to allow them to standardize their production and carcass quality while making use of each farm's resources.
The time frame for making transitions from one farming system to another is often measured in years, as crops are planted, animals are procured, breeding stock is changed, markets are explored, equipment or facilities are modified, or financing is arranged. However, this process begins with awareness of options and discussion of the benefits. This project has brought awareness to the following numbers of farmers/ranchers and others:

Event* Date Attendance Audience**
SRM/AFGC January 1999 50 F/R, R, A, E
Cow-calf production February 1999 60 F/R, R, A, E
Meat Marketing April 1999 120 F/R, A, E
Dairy tours June, August 1999 40 F/R, R, A, E, L
Alt Ag Expo August 1999 200 F/R, A, E, D
Livestock Alternatives November 1999 20 F/R, A, E
Organic dairy January 2000 5 F/R, E
EQIP/grazing June 2000 20 F/R, A, L
Dairy facilities July 2000 50 F/R, A, E
Alt Ag Expo August 2000 230 F/R, A, E, D
Poultry production August 2000 20 F/R
Dairy Grazing May 2001 25 F/R, R, A, E
Grazing Annual Forages November 2000 20 F/R, A, E
Rotational grazing June 2001 45 F/R, A, E
Dairy grazing July 2001 10 F/R, E
Rotational grazing July 2001 40 F/R, A, E

* Some events held at multiple locations.
**Audience= Farmers/Ranchers, Researchers, Agency staff, Extension, Lenders, Decision-makers. Farmer/rancher attendance was approximately 20 percent at SRM/AFGC and 90 percent at other events.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Economic data for individual farms was compiled and available for on-farm discussions (see Appendix). Although publication of aggregated data from similar farms was not funded by this project, UNL Extension is pursuing that objective and will share that information when it is completed.
Each farm-based activity in this project was preceded by media announcements of the activity and its benefits to farmers/ranchers. Some events also received media coverage that resulted in news stories after the event.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

It is apparent from our initial economic interviews that farms are integrating crops and livestock, so that isolation of livestock production practices is difficult. In other instances, alternative crop enterprises are being developed as well, and we did not collect that information due to time and funding constraints.
Markets for alternative crops/livestock (both new crops and alternatively produced crops) have a strong bearing on the adoption of the new ideas. We have noticed increased attendance and interest by farmers/ranchers at those events where both production practices and markets are discussed. However, we did not have funding to develop this aspect of our presentations. An ideal program would include alternative production practices presented by experienced farmers, existing markets presented by buyers, experiences marketing the crop presented by farmers, and other considerations/developments presented by researchers/Extension.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.