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.