More than a decade after Nebraska created its “livestock friendly” designation, participating counties have gained more cattle farms and lost fewer hog farms than those that lack the designation, a new study by agricultural economists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln showed.
Compared to other counties, livestock-friendly counties experienced higher growth in their number of cattle farms and slower declines in their number of hog farms, the study found. Regression analysis showed that the livestock-friendly designation had a stronger positive correlation to livestock expansion than almost all other factors measured, including the nearby presence of meat packing plants.
The article, authored by Brian Mills, Azzeddine Azzam, Kate Brooks and David Aiken, is forthcoming in the Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy.
The Livestock Friendly County Program was adopted in 2003 in the wake of controversy over large hog confinement operations being established in central Nebraska in the late 1990s. Some opponents of the hog facilities unsuccessfully sought to give counties emergency powers to block the development of large livestock facilities.
By contrast, the livestock-friendly program enables counties, on a voluntary basis, to seek a designation from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture declaring them receptive to new livestock developments within their counties. The program appears to be unique in the nation, although agriculture department officials said they have received inquiries from at least one other state considering a similar strategy.
Greg Ibach, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said the agency is pleased that the study confirmed that the program works. The designation is used to market Nebraska sites to the livestock industry nationally and internationally.
“It signifies, at the county level, that they’re more open to projects and more open to growing their industry,” Ibach said. “Livestock-friendly counties have made a commitment to transparency and consistency to their producers.”
Morrill County in the Nebraska Panhandle was the first county to obtain the designation, in 2005. Presently, 37 of Nebraska’s 93 counties have achieved the designation, with several more under review.
The agricultural economists studied 21 counties that achieved the designation between 2002 and 2012 and compared the number of farms reported in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 censuses.
In raw numbers, counties with the livestock-friendly designation saw larger growth in cattle operations — a 12% increase in livestock-friendly counties between 2007 and 2012, compared to an 8% increase in counties without the designation. More than three-fourths of counties (16 of 21) with the livestock-friendly designation saw a net increase in their cattle farm numbers.
Although most Nebraska counties saw a decline in the number of hog farms during the study period, the decline was significantly slower in counties designated as livestock friendly. From 2007 to 2012, there was a 15.6% decline in the number of hog farms in participating counties. For counties without the livestock-friendly designation, the decline was 62%.
“It does seem to attract more farms,” said Brian Mills, who studied the livestock-friendly designation as his master’s degree thesis. “For that, I think it’s good. Where I’m from, the population’s been going down, and it’s nice to have people come back and farm.”
Mills grew up on a diversified farm near Ansley, Neb., and is now studying for a doctorate in agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University.
Co-author Azzam, an agricultural economics professor, said the study’s conclusions are more nuanced than the raw numbers show. “It’s not easy to tell what’s going on just by the numbers,” he noted.
Other factors included population density; per capita income levels; cattle and hog prices; corn prices; the presence of a meat packing plant in the county or a neighboring county; the presence of an ethanol plant in the county or a neighboring county; the concentration of livestock in the county, as measured by cattle per square mile and by percentage of the state’s total cattle inventory; the county’s geographic region of the state, and the number of years a county has been in the livestock-friendly program.
The study did not review farm sizes or zoning regulations.
“After controlling for other factors, on average, farm numbers in counties with livestock-friendly designation are higher than those counties without the designation,” the study concluded.