Alternative Systems for Livestock in Nebraska

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, soybeans, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Vegetables: turnips
  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, swine, sheep
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, free-range, feed rations, manure management, grazing - rotational, watering systems, winter forage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, agricultural finance
  • Sustainable Communities: urban/rural integration


    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.
    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.