Jack's Insights March 2017

By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

When I arrived at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center and Extension District in June 2014, one of the publications I found to be helpful in better understanding the Panhandle was an 8-page Extension Circular titled “Agriculture in the Nebraska Panhandle.”  This smart-looking, full-color circular helped me learn about the key crops grown in the Panhandle, the scale and types of livestock, where the Panhandle ranked in comparison to other areas of the state, and the economic contribution that agriculture provides to Nebraska. 

Dr. Jack Whittier

Jessica (Johnson) Groskopf, Gary Hergert, Dipak Santra and Alex Pavlista who, at the time were all located at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, authored the 2014 publication.  Since that time, Gary Hergert has retired and Alex Pavlista will retire this year at the end of March.  As with any publication listing statistics and rankings, the publication soon becomes out of date.  Such was the case with the 2014 edition of the circular Agriculture in the Nebraska Panhandle.

Additionally, the printed stock of this publication was getting very low. So Jessica, with her ever-present “can do” attitude, agreed to update and revise this publication. The revised edition publication is nearing release, so I thought I would take the opportunity in this month’s Jack’s Insights to highlight some of the information about Panhandle agriculture.

The information in the revised publication came from the Census of Agriculture conducted by the National Ag Statistic Service (NASS) branch of USDA. The Census of Ag is taken every five years. The most recent data available is from the 2012 census. There will be a Census of Agriculture taken again in 2017, but summary of this census will take several months to complete after the information is collected.  Therefore, Jessica thought it best to use the 2012 data rather than wait for the 2017 tabulation, or to base the statistics simply on the year to year information that is also available.

I’ll draw a few key statements directly from the final draft of this revised circular to spotlight the impact agriculture has in the Panhandle:

  • The Panhandle Extension District consists of 16 counties in western and north central Nebraska, over 22,000 square miles representing about 30 percent of Nebraska’s land area.
  • According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 5,907 farms and ranches in this area, generating nearly $2.2 billion in sales, almost 60 percent from livestock sales, and approximately 40 percent from crop sales. Farm and ranch operations vary greatly in size.
  • Fourteen percent of operations have a value of sales of $500,000 or more. The average size of an agricultural operation is 2,956 acres. The average age of an operator in the District is 58.  Seventy-nine percent of producers are male, and 98 percent are Caucasian.
  • The Panhandle’s land and water resources are the key to the region’s agricultural productivity.  Land ranges in elevation from over 5,400 feet in the southwest corner of the Panhandle to 3,600 feet along the North Platte River.
  • Three-quarters of the agricultural land in the district (10,640,000 acres) is native rangeland and pasture which provides forage to raise livestock as well as valuable ecosystems for plants and wildlife. The remaining quarter of the land area (3,440,000 acres) is used to grow crops.
  • Sixty percent of the cropland in the Panhandle District (almost 2 million acres) does not have irrigation water. The predominant dryland areas are in the southern Panhandle counties; however, significant acres are also in Box Butte, and Sheridan counties. Typically, dryland crops are grown using a two- to four-year rotation that often includes a fallow period during one year. Winter wheat, proso millet, yellow field pea, sunflower, corn, and annual forages are the primary crops used in dryland crop rotations.
  • The remaining 40 percent of the District’s cropland uses irrigation. Over half of these irrigated acres are in Scotts Bluff, Box Butte, and Morrill counties. Irrigated crops include hay, corn, dry beans, sugarbeets, and potato.
  • The livestock industry is the Panhandle’s largest contributor to the local economy. Beef cattle account for the bulk of the livestock. In 2012 there were 1.1 million head of cattle in the Panhandle District, or approximately 20 percent of the state’s cattle population. There are two main types of beef cattle operations: cow-calf operations and feed yards. There are 2,500 ranches in the district. In 2012 the total market value of livestock sales was just over $1.3 billion.

There is a close relationship between crop and livestock production, particularly in the irrigated regions of the Panhandle. Examples of this are the large number of cattle that graze on corn stover throughout the winter and the use of byproducts from crop production that are used in feeding cattle in feedlots. The following statement from the circular illustrates another important connection between corn and cattle feeding:

“Dent corn is grown in the area and it is a main ingredient for cattle feed. Dent corn can also be used for ethanol production. Bridgeport Ethanol, located in Bridgeport, Nebraska, can convert about 48,000 bushels of corn per day into approximately 137,280 gallons of ethanol. An important ethanol byproduct for area cattle feeders is wet distillers grains (WDG). Bridgeport Ethanol fills approximately 46 semi loads per day with WDG for use at area feed yards.”

Another important source of cattle feed is the byproducts from sugarbeets when they are processed to produce sugar for human consumption. Wet beet pulp, as well as beet molasses, are available to area cattle feeders from the Western Sugar factory during the sugarbeet campaign. Beet molasses is a primary ingredient in some of the liquid feed supplements used in feedlots and for cows grazing corn stover.

In addition to the direct impact of production agriculture I have pointed out, there are numerous other supporting industries that contribute to the economy of the Nebraska Panhandle.  I’m hopeful that today’s Jack’s Insights has helped you understand the benefit given you an appreciation for the role agriculture plays in our region.

“Agriculture in the Nebraska Panhandle,” EC864, is available on-line at http://extensionpubs.unl.edu. Use the keyword ec864 to search the site. Printed copies are available at the Scottsbluff Extension Office.