LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A proposal to build perhaps the state’s largest cattle feedlot in a rural, southwest Nebraska county is getting a second chance after the Dundy County Board refused to approve the idea last month.
The proposal by Blackshirt Feeders LP to construct a $65-million feedlot, holding up to 100,000 cattle and consuming 10 million bushels of corn a year, has stirred controversy and filled meeting rooms over the past couple of months in the southwest corner of the state.
Supporters wearing black shirts, packed a public hearing last month to back the idea as much needed economic development and jobs (an estimated 85), as well as a new customer for corn. The state senator who represents the area, Dan Hughes of Venango, was among the advocates.
But it has also attracted concern as being too large for a small county of 1,913 residents that doesn’t have abundant water resources or any other feedlots close to that size.
A decision on whether the project moves forward is now expected to be announced by the county board May 16.
On Thursday, the three Dundy County commissioners met in a closed, executive session in Benkelman to consider what to do after the board failed to approve the feedlot project at its April 5 meeting.
Dundy County Attorney Gary Burke had advised the commissioners after the April 5 vote that there were several “deficiencies and shortcomings” in their decision. So the board asked for an opinion from the self-insurance pool that covers the county.
No reason specified
Among the deficiencies, the county attorney wrote in an April 18 memo, were that commissioners did not specify the reason for rejecting the project, as required. There were also concerns that the feedlot project wasn’t technically rejected or approved, as required — the only vote was to OK the project, which failed to pass.
Burke recommended holding another meeting on the project, and that’s what came out of the closed-door meeting Thursday, according to the county attorney.
“They’re going to come out with a public statement, ‘here’s what we’re going to do,’ “ Burke said.
Because Friday was Arbor Day and Dundy County offices were closed, commissioners were unable to reconsider the feedlot project at its next scheduled meeting on Monday. The next county board meeting after that is May 16.
The manager of Blackshirt Feeders, Dr. Eric Behlke, a veterinarian and native of Benkelman who now works as a feedlot consultant for a Canadian company, said he’s hopeful the project will get the OK.
Behlke said it’s been his dream to put his experience working with feedlots from China to Kazakhstan into practice. He called Dundy County “the sweet spot” for cattle feeding due to the climate, the availability of feed and proximity to meatpacking plants.
“We have a chance to capitalize on our two most important resources, corn and cattle,” he said.
Behlke, who has two other Canadian veterinarians as partners, said the 100,000-head Blackshirt project would be the first of its size in the U.S. to utilize a “roller compacted concrete” surface, rather than dirt. The more solid feedlot surface, he said, would eliminate mud and increase health and performance by the cattle, as well as reduce flies, dust and odor.
Existing feedlots much smaller
“We really believe this feedlot will be a showcase for southwest Nebraska and the state of Nebraska,” he said. “We want this to be the most environmentally friendly around.”
Currently, the largest feedlots in Dundy County are in the 10,000- to 12,000-head range. The largest feedlot in Nebraska is thought to be Adams Land & Cattle, south of Broken Bow, which has a capacity of at least 85,000.
The massive size, along with impacts on groundwater and county roads, emerged as the main concerns when the Dundy County Board considered the project April 5.
The project had won a unanimous recommendation from the county planning board. The OK came with 13 conditions, such as having a mitigation plan for dust and flies, working with the county on road maintenance and obtaining approval for water use.
Rather have smaller feedlots
Richard Bartholomew of Benkelman told the Examiner on Sunday that he would rather see proposals for five feedlots, holding 20,000-head of cattle each, instead of one for 100,000 head.
“I have difficulty here on a personal basis accepting that bigger is better,” Bartholomew said at the April 5 meeting, according to the Benkelman Post.
Bartholomew, on Sunday, also expressed empathy for residents just across the border in Chase County who are “going to get run over and swept away by the process.” The Blackshirt Feeder site is at the northern border of Dundy County, he said, and just across the county line, near the facility, is a home occupied by a young couple.
But Dundy County’s setback rules have no force across county lines, which Bartholomew said might be something the State Legislature needs to look at when such projects arise.
At the April 5 meeting, Commissioner Jerry Fries of Benkelman said the longtime trend in agriculture has been to “get bigger and get out,” according to the local newspaper.
Feedlots of that size are not unheard of, he added, and the Blackshirt project meets all of the county’s zoning requirements.
Bartholomew’s motion at the meeting to reject the feedlot proposal failed to get a second. Then, Fries’ motion to approve the feedlot fell short, on a 1-2 vote.
Concern about roads
Commissioner Scott A. Olson of Haigler joined Bartholomew in voting “no.” Olson expressed concern about the size of the project and increased costs for county roads, according to the Benkelman Post. Olson, the chairman of the board, did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Now a final decision is expected May 16.
Behlke said the Blackshirt Feeders project, in his opinion, meets all the county’s zoning requirements, which he called the most stringent in the state.
Dundy County is not listed among the 51 other rural counties that have passed a “livestock friendly” declaration, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s website, but Bartholomew and others said “livestock friendly” signs are posted at entrances to the county, whose economy is based on farming and ranching.
Behlke added that downsizing the project to fewer than 100,000 head of livestock isn’t feasible. The larger size provides economies of scale that a smaller feedlot would not, Behlke said.
Ready to build
As he planted corn Saturday on a Dundy County farm still owned by his family, Behlke said he has been working at least three years to make the Blackshirt Feeders project a reality.
Initially, the plan was to buy land from a state entity, the Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds, which manages parcels of land set aside for schools way back in settlement days.
But a deal couldn’t be reached, which led him to a parcel in the northern part of Dundy County, along the Chase County line. Behlke said it is about 16 to 18 miles to the three nearest towns, Imperial, Wauneta and Benkelman.
The project still has some hurdles. It needs to obtain some nearby irrigated farm ground and “retire” at least six center-pivot irrigation systems to obtain enough water to supply the feedlot. The Upper Republican Natural Resources District would have to approve such a water swap.
But Behlke said he doesn’t see that as a problem and reads the county’s zoning rules as saying the County Board “shall” approve the project if it meets all the zoning rules.
Bartholomew, when reached Sunday, didn’t dispute that.
“As I understand it, the (county) commissioners are really neutered on this thing. If all the boxes are checked, we have no option but to approve it,” he said.
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