May 10, 2019

The case for modern livestock production

Topic: Issues

by Pete Hanebutt, NDFB Public Policy Director

Livestock and animal agriculture flourish across the country and in particular the rest of the Midwest: Unfortunately, such is not the case in North Dakota. Fifty years ago, most farmers would have raised some livestock in addition to grain farming but after WWII and more directly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, farmers started to specialize. With specialization, efficiencies were found, and farm sizes grew. Today, each American farmer feeds more people on less land than ever before. This allows American consumers to enjoy the safest, healthiest and cheapest food supply in the world.

Along with efficiencies gained, livestock production moved under roof or indoors to address environmental concerns and allow for better animal care. No longer did the hogs or cows urinate and defecate in streams, ponds or lakes and poultry didn’t fall prey to various predators while free ranging. The animals benefited from a controlled environment and the natural environment outside of the buildings benefited by managing the animal manure. The result? Animal diseases have been lessened and overall animal health has increased overwhelmingly. Happy cows, pigs and chickens produce more efficiently and research from our land grant universities has proven how sound science can allow modern agricultural to take place even in densely populated Midwest states such as Ohio, Indiana and our neighboring Minnesota.

Modern agriculture has experienced some growing pains. First, we had to learn how to make animals comfortable in confinement, but along the way we learned better ways to care for our animals. Next, we learned how to manage manure, smells and dust. These improvements made row cropping more efficient by providing rich organic fertilizer which we inject into the ground, reducing smells or dust while making soils healthier. Most importantly, we’ve learned how to raise livestock of every species within proximity to an ever-growing population of our city cousins who only know their affordable food comes from the grocery store.

One might ask, who has benefited from this transformation in modern agriculture? The American and worldwide consumer has benefited by keeping food costs low and food choices abundant. But an obvious benefactor often overlooked is small-town America. Where diversified livestock production has grown, small towns thrive. Farmers and the ag economy are often the backbone of the entire community. In areas with diversified agriculture, including livestock, the whims of a foreign grain market, or weather, or worldwide politics are not as harmful to the overall local economy. If grain prices are depressed, livestock markets flourish. This diversification of our rural economies has a way of allowing small towns to thrive and survive.

The big question is – Why has the transformation of livestock production passed North Dakota by? Or perhaps we should ask, “Why have North Dakotans missed out on the evolution which has saved so many small towns from drying up in Ohio, Indiana, and Minnesota?” Our grain farmers should be asking, “Why is our basis typically so much less than our neighboring states or why is North Dakota ranked 39th nationally in soybean usage while Vermont is ahead of us at 38th?” Vermont cannot produce many soybeans, but they are certainly importing plenty to feed dairy cows, turkeys, and laying hens.

One answer has been North Dakota’s regulatory climate. Nearly 20 years ago, the Legislature set into code rules governing the environmental management and public health concerns of modern livestock production. By most accounts, these rules have worked well, and have required only minor adjustments over the years to address emerging science, concerns or other issues. Unfortunately, local regulators, at the township and occasionally county level, have overstepped their authority as granted by law, in efforts to directly or indirectly stifle livestock expansion in our state.

There are a few contributing factors driving these local roadblocks, but mostly the blame lies with local “not in my backyard” attitude, even if the backyard is miles away. To combat local obstructionists, NDFB went to the Legislature with a fairly simple idea: Force local units of government to follow the law as specified in code and legal precedence when regulating the location and size of the operation or the type of animals being raised.

With the passage of SB 2345 this spring, it is hoped the handcuffs are removed and local farm families will find it easier to raise livestock in North Dakota. In the future we hope to see local communities, economies and farmers benefit from an increase in modern livestock production within our state.

View NDFB's White Paper on the economic impact of a dairy farm.

View NDFB's White Paper on the economic impact of a swine farm