Nebraska loves its cattle a little too much


On the surface, it sounded like good news: In 2013, Nebraska supplanted Texas as the No. 1 cattle-feeding state in the country.

The numbers were impressive: Nebraska had 2.46 million cattle on feed, surpassing the 2.44 million in Texas, the longtime king of cattle. They had folks in the governor’s mansion and at Farm Bureau headquarters especially giddy ... and dreaming of even more.

Shortly after the state attained top cattle-feeding status, Ronnie Green, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, expanded on that livestock vision. Nebraska needed to add 560,000 head of cattle in existing feedlots, he said. The state should import another 650,000 hogs, bringing the total up to 3.05 million. And Nebraska could add 60,000 more dairy cows, doubling the current total, plus another 20 million laying hens, tripling the present number.

But you had to read the university’s paper to its very end to find this caveat: “The report acknowledges there are environmental and societal implications to any expansion of livestock production.”

Well, yes, says Ted Thiemann, president of the Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition, a small but vibrant minority fighting Big Ag’s self-proclaimed destiny in the state; there are lots of environmental implications: Factory farming, market manipulation, animal cruelty, health hazards, the threat to family farming as agriculture industrializes, concentration of ownership, air and water pollution, the loss of ecosystems, people leaving our rural landscapes, carbon emissions and global warming.

So what if we flipped the story around, and began by considering the implications barely mentioned in the livestock report? It is no coincidence that the greatest depletion of groundwater in the United States has occurred in the Midwest, where a single cow can guzzle 15 to 20 gallons of water a day. Add to that the water needed for corn grown as cattle feed or for turning into ethanol, another misguided policy. An acre of corn requires 350,000 gallons of water over a 100-day growing season, according to Colorado State University’s Extension Service.

Pollution? Nebraska’s waterways already rank sixth-worst in the nation for toxic pollution according to a recent analysis by Environment America, using the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory for 2012. Three of the five worst polluters in Nebraska are livestock-processing facilities – two owned by Tyson Foods and one by Cargill Inc.

Health hazards and factory farming? More concentrated livestock means still more antibiotics in the food chain, leading to the alarming growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration admitted, livestock accounted for 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the country. A recent study performed by German doctors warns that antibiotics may soon be “entirely ineffective” as a weapon against bacterial infections in both humans and animals because of their overuse in “agro-industrial facilities,” jargon for “factory farms.

Then there is the product itself. The World Health Organization says meat consumption is responsible for 30 percent of all cancers. (Perhaps it is appropriate that Nebraska’s annual Cattlemen’s Ball raises money for cancer research.)

Depopulation of rural landscapes? Within two-thirds of Nebraska’s 93 counties, the population decreased every year between 2011-2013.

Loss of ecosystems, the farm program and farm policy? In the rush to grow more corn, farmers in Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and North and South Dakota plowed up 1.3 million acres of native grasslands between 2006 and 2011. That’s the most grassland (and habitat) lost since tractors first came on the Midwest scene in the 1920s.

Global warming? The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says, “Animal agriculture is the No. 1 contributor to global warming.”

Industrialized agriculture? Countless scenarios, and here’s just one: Texas recently asked the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a nuclear attack – i.e., grant emergency permission for the state to use hundreds of thousands of pounds of the toxic, restricted-use herbicide propazine to kill “superweeds.” Of course, these superweeds evolved owing to the overuse of herbicides in the first place. The EPA denied the request.

If Nebraska wants a glimpse of its future, it need look no further than east across the Missouri River, to Iowa. With 15 million confined hogs, five times the state’s human population, the state has become a “toilet for industrial agriculture” or a “cesspool,” depending on your choice of words from Iowa editorial writers, environmentalists and public water officials.

Those are some of the “implications” Thiemann referred to. These are some of the likely consequences of the desire to further grow Nebraska’s livestock numbers. And recall what the writer Ed Abbey said about always shooting for expansion: Growth for the sake of growth “is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Peter Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a newspaper editor and freelance writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

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