Ag groups push for expansion of Nebraska’s livestock industry to aid struggling farm economy

Barbara Soderlin World-Herald staff writer
Farm Forum

OSMOND, Neb. — A shockingly big bill for farm fertilizer kicked Melissa Doerr into action.

With her husband away for National Guard training, the northeast Nebraska farmer didn’t waste time figuring out her own way to bring in another paycheck to support the family of six.

That was in early 2016. She heard about a new hog operation one of her Pierce County neighbors had started, and got the ball rolling on launching her own.

By that December, Doerr had won over her husband, Justin Doerr, to the plan, and the family had built a barn and taken delivery of their first load of piglets to raise into market-weight hogs.

The business brought in about $20,000 in profit that first year, and generated enough manure that the family said it additionally saved about $30,000 off its cost of fertilizer, which is one of a farmer’s biggest expenses. The Doerrs raise the pigs under contract for Illinois-based producer The Maschhoffs, a privately held business with offices in Columbus, Nebraska.

The Doerrs’ hog business is part of a new wave of expansion in Nebraska’s livestock industry. Melissa, 31, and Justin, 36, are among a growing number of Nebraska farmers looking into raising livestock at a time when low crop prices have made it harder to turn a profit through raising corn and soybeans alone.

“You have to diversify if you’re going to have a go,” Justin Doerr said.

New hog barns going up on eastern Nebraska farmland and projects now underway like retailer Costco’s Fremont-area chicken processing venture may be just the start.

Expect more pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows and even farm-raised fish in Nebraska in coming years if agriculture boosters are successful in a renewed push to attract livestock growth.

The state’s major ag supporters, including the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Department of Agriculture and major commodities boards like the Nebraska Corn Board, are teaming up behind the effort, through funding for an organization that isn’t widely known.

The Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, or A-FAN, has been around for more than a decade but reorganized in recent years. The Lincoln-based group, with three full-time employees and one part-time worker, has shifted its focus away from consumer education about agriculture and squarely toward livestock development.

Part of the group’s work is training farmers and connecting them with resources to research, finance, permit and launch livestock operations. A “producer empowerment” workshop teaches farmers how to talk to their neighbors and others about their plans, and what to know about topics like zoning, fertilizer, and water well placement before they begin.

It also helps livestock producers like The Maschhoffs, which had more than $1 billion in revenue in 2016, find farmers to contract with.

And A-FAN looks to recruit new livestock processors like Costco, a project it sees as a defining moment of growth.

A-FAN and its supporters say a bigger livestock sector will give the state a bigger share of the nation’s growth in meat raised for both domestic use and exports.

It will provide new, local customers to buy Nebraska-grown grain to feed the livestock, meaning bigger demand and maybe higher prices for corn and soybeans.

And it will boost both state coffers and rural communities, creating jobs and allowing more farmers to keep their businesses viable and pass them on to their children, advocates say.

“When you really think about the most efficient way to add value to a row crop commodity, it’s feeding it to an animal,” A-FAN Executive Director Kristen Hassebrook said. “It’s the most return on your investment, and it’s something that we’re good at in Nebraska.”

It’s not realistic to attract many data centers or big corporate offices to rural Nebraska, she said.

“But we can recruit dairies and hog facilities and beef feedlots and do it in a responsible way, and those are going to be good jobs, butts in kindergarten seats, moms in the grocery stores,” she said.

Melissa Doerr said she had her own four children, ages 11 to 4, in mind when she started the hog operation. She and Justin both grew up on northeast Nebraska farms, and they want their own children to be able to stick around in the family business if they want. Their children help with daily chores like checking on the nearly 2,500 hogs in their barn.

“It’s so important to us to raise the kids with that love for animals and love for the farm,” she said.

Of course, there are risks to expanding livestock farming, one of the most pressing being uncertainty over foreign trade agreements, as President Donald Trump looks to renegotiate export deals that farmers say they depend on to sell more pork, soybeans and other products.

Consumer tastes and trends around farming techniques and food consumption can also be fickle. And residents of rural states are raising concerns about the impact of livestock production on the environment.

Tyson Foods last year withdrew plans to build a chicken plant in Kansas after community outcry.

Citizens in Iowa, Illinois and other states have pushed regulators for new limits on big barns like the Doerrs’, sometimes known as consolidated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. They cite odor from barns and water pollution from manure applied as farm fertilizer.

In Nebraska, opponents of the Costco poultry project have raised concerns that Nebraska might see some of those same effects as its livestock sector grows.

Hassebrook said Nebraska, through the State Department of Environmental Quality and local county boards, has stricter oversight for permitting large livestock operations than Iowa does, not to mention far fewer hogs: about 3.6 million to Iowa’s 22.8 million.

“I’m very confident in Nebraska that we have the regulations in place to manage what we need to do to grow livestock,” she said.

A-FAN encourages farmers and livestock processors to be upfront about their plans.

“We’re a big proponent of, let’s get in early, let’s be open and honest and transparent from the get-go,” she said.

The Doerrs didn’t see opposition from neighbors or activists as they went through state and county permitting processes for their barn. They said odor is not a problem outside the barn except when they pump manure out from its concrete holding pit in the fall, and they warn their neighbors ahead of time when this will happen.

Justin Doerr said raising pigs is a different proposition today than it was when he grew up in the 1980s. He once swore he’d never have pigs again, thinking of the around-the-clock work of caring for pregnant sows, piglets and growing hogs in open barns. As the agriculture economy transformed amid the ’80s farm crisis, the Doerrs said, farmers got rid of livestock and focused on expanding their row-crop acres.

Livestock is much more concentrated today. In 1982, about 16,000 Nebraska farms raised a total of about 4 million hogs and pigs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in its agriculture census. In 2012, the state had about 3 million hogs and pigs, raised at only about 1,500 farms.

The newer confinement-style operation the Doerrs have is now the type of farm that most of the pork people buy at mainstream grocery stores comes from. The industry is segmented so that in some cases, sows give birth to piglets at one farm, and the piglets are weaned and trucked to another farm to grow to market weight.

The hogs raised by the Doerrs are slaughtered at plants including Hormel’s in Fremont and Farmland Foods in Crete. A new pork plant that opened last summer in Sioux City, Iowa, is also driving livestock expansion in the region.

Some groups say the animals should have more freedom to roam outdoors. The pigs at farms like the Doerrs’ spend their lives indoors, in large group pens where they eat and drink, relieve themselves and sleep. Their waste falls through the slatted floor into the pit below, making for a pungent smell. Some grocers, like Whole Foods, sell pork only from pigs that have access to bedding or the outdoors.

Proponents of confinement barns cite biosecurity precautions, and say the efficiencies make it possible for a family like the Doerrs to run the barn on essentially part-time hours.

The Maschhoffs looks to expand in Nebraska and in the short term to find 10 to 15 more farmers like Melissa Doerr, said John Csukker, business development for The Maschhoffs out of Columbus. In the long term, it could add more sows, and need even more barns to raise the pigs.

“There’s a lot of room to grow,” he said.