Growth in the livestock and poultry industries in Nebraska faces hurdles is greatly influenced by county zoning and local decision-making. Variation in policies from one county to the next and in decisions made by county boards creates significant challenges for agricultural operations and for local communities looking to remain vibrant and grow. Many were requesting that a common tool be developed for county officials to use that would bring greater consistency and objectivity to the evaluation of proposals to expand animal feeding operations.
What was done?
In 2015, the Nebraska Legislature passed legislation (LB106) that directed the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to convene a committee of experts to develop an assessment matrix for livestock development. A 10-person advisory committee, including county officials, livestock industry representatives, and me [representing the University of Nebraska] was approved by Governor Ricketts later that year. In keeping with directions outlined in Nebraska LB106, the committee:
- Reviewed tools already developed by counties in Nebraska and by other states, mainly those used in Iowa and Wisconsin.
- Developed a tool (Excel spreadsheet or pdf) that produces quantifiable results based upon scoring of objective criteria;
- Made concerted efforts to assure that the tool is practical to use when applying for conditional-use permits or special exceptions and when county officials score these applications; and
- Ensured that all criteria had definite point selections and provided a minimum threshold total score that is required to ‘pass’.
In 2016, the resulting Nebraska Livestock Siting Assessment Matrix (‘Livestock Matrix’) was posted for comments and approved for dissemination by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. The Livestock Matrix was recently reviewed and updated by the advisory committee, and the current version is available for public access at http://www.nda.nebraska.gov/promotion/livestock_matrix/index.html.
What we have learned?
Development of the Livestock Matrix was a highly formative process. Overall, the factors that consumed the vast majority of discussion and effort involved the following:
- Need for simplicity. Strong sentiments were expressed that the Livestock Matrix should be easy to complete, with little or no need for assembling additional information or consultation.
- Desire for transparency. Clarity was paramount, with parties on both sides expecting to see numbers and requirements specified up front, which excluded process-based approaches.
- Questions of merit. Many ‘generally good ideas’ and recommendations were removed when benefits were not well understood or defined, or a practice was considered an industry norm.
- Will to retain control. Perceived loss of control or potential for new regulation ended discussion of some ideas that otherwise had merit.
LB106 specified that the matrix be “Designed to promote the growth and viability of animal agriculture in this state”, and as a result, the advisory committee was comprised of supporters of [responsible growth of] the livestock and poultry industries. Support for local control runs deep in Nebraska, though, and one of the most significant hurdles arose early on due to amended language in the final bill, “…develop an assessment matrix which may be used by county officials to determine whether to approve or disapprove” applications. Voluntary consideration and adoption of the Livestock Matrix at local levels totally changed the nature of the discussions, and made it very challenging to develop a single tool that would have widespread appeal and rate of adoption, virtually guaranteeing that varied policies and practices would still exist. Despite this challenge, the matrix committee pushed through to develop a ‘template tool’, which has been adopted – either as is or as a template – by some counties.
The next major hurdle faced was how to handle county setback distances. With the Livestock Matrix being voluntary, it quickly became clear that county officials were not going to adopt a tool that limited their use of and control over setback distance requirements. After mulling over options, the committee decided that satisfying the county’s setback requirement would be the primary criterion for obtaining 30 of the 75 points needed to receive a passing score. To promote positive change, the committee developed sets of sliding-scale ‘base separation distances for odor’ using an approach that drew from the science-based Nebraska Odor Footprint Tool (NOFT). The intent was that county officials would use these distances [preferably] in establishing county setbacks or as an alternative approach that could be accepted by a county. Direct use of the NOFT and inherent NOFT concepts within the Livestock Matrix was greatly limited by concerns over the NOFT requiring additional work of applicants, not being sufficiently transparent, and not being applicable for all applicants (esp. open-lot cattle feeders).
The idea of using ‘transitional planning zones’ that add or deduct points based upon consideration of locations of all residents within 1.5 times the separation distance for odor is presented in the alternative approach (Figure 1).
The intent was to bring more information into decisions than just what is the distance to the closest neighbor relative to the county setback. The zones are mainly presented for information purposes, as there was considerable hesitance to adopt a scoring system that was not considered sufficiently simple and transparent to merit replacing a set separation distance being the criterion.
Water quality / permits:
Committee members shared the view that a proposed expansion that would secure required environmental permits (via Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, NDEQ) and meet the county’s setback requirement, if any, should generally earn a passing score and not be exposed to local requirements that are often employed to delay and deter operations from expanding. There was disagreement, however, on whether an applicant should need to complete the rest of the assessment if these two conditions were met. This issue weighed the applicant’s time and effort completing the assessment against the potential that glaring concerns (point deductions) may arise in another area and that communities may not see the matrix as being comprehensive and credible. The current matrix conveys an expectation that all main sections be scored, but has been streamlined to minimize required time and effort.
There were also differing views on whether the Livestock Matrix should highlight the various water quality protections that would be put in place or simply that NDEQ requirements would be satisfied. While there was significant early interest by several committee members to promote and educate the public on stewardship practices required of permitted feeding operations, the desire to reinforce the value of determinations made by NDEQ and to keep the tool very practical to complete and assess carried in the end. As a result, applicants must indicate that NDEQ approval has been or will be secured to obtain 30 of the 75 points needed to receive a passing score (Figure 2), while indication of the practices that will be implemented is encouraged, but does not affect the score received.
This section of the Livestock Matrix arose was discussed again as the committee considered those applicants who would receive a letter from NDEQ stating that a permit would not be required – primarily applicable to small animal feeding operations and operations that involved dry manure. The challenge presented was, ‘Does having official approval to go forward without needing a permit offer the same protections and merit the same points as would exist if required plans were developed to secure permits?’ The issue became prominent when a broiler processing facility was approved for construction, which required constructing hundreds of new broiler (chicken) houses in the state, none of which would likely require an NDEQ permit. The main concern was that such facilities could be approved without having nutrient management plans (and a few other desired plans) in place to limit potential nutrient loading of ground and surface waters from application of manure at rates exceeding crop needs. The company associated with the current large poultry expansion took a proactive stance and internally requires all of its growers to have nutrient management plans in place and qualify for an NDEQ permit, resolving the immediate concerns, but not the longer-term issue with the Livestock Matrix. The committee will continue to examine ways to better highlight and reinforce the importance of nutrient management within the Livestock Matrix without suggesting changes in NDEQ regulation.
Other environmental sections:
Six more sections address various environmental risks and protections, including:
- Environmental and zoning compliance record
- Water quality protection – livestock facilities
- Odor and dust control for facilities
- Manure application practices
- Manure application separation
- Additional assurance of environmental protection
Each of these sections was refined down to a list of items that the committee believed merited inclusion in determining the total score.
Additional sections address other topics such as:
- Locations of the authorized representative and the site manager relative to the facility
- Communication with the community
- Economic impact
- Landscaping and aesthetics
Each of these areas was well-understood to influence acceptance by the community. Probably the biggest challenge for the committee was assigning appropriate section scores and total passing scores to value the importance of these areas without suggesting that an environmentally risky application could achieve a passing score through strong scores in these other areas.
Impacts and Implications
In developing the Nebraska Livestock Siting Assessment Matrix, the committee made available a well-critiqued tool for voluntary consideration by county officials. Overall, the Livestock Matrix strikes a sometimes uncomfortable balance between being comprehensive and scientifically correct and being transparent and easy to use. Although the Livestock Matrix will likely fall short of the original goal of achieving consistency and uniformity in Nebraska’s county zoning policies and practices, county officials are considering the matrix as a template zoning tool or as a gauge for evaluating and adjusting current policy.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is continuing to promote adoption of the Nebraska Livestock Siting Assessment Matrix, especially to counties looking to be officially designated as “Livestock Friendly”. The matrix will be evaluated again in 1-2 years.
Richard R. (Rick) Stowell, Extension Specialist – Animal Environment, Rick.Stowell@unl.edu
For more information on the Nebraska Odor Footprint Tool, visit https://water.unl.edu/manure/odor-footprint-tool.
The other members serving on the committee included: John Csukker; Elizabeth Doerr, Leon Kolbet, Dean Krueger, Mark McHargue, Jennifer Myers, Sarah Pillen, Andrew Scholting, Steve Sill.
The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2019. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth. Minneapolis, MN. April 22-26, 2019. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.