State’s largest feedlot gets county’s OK despite worries about whether ‘bigger is better’

Blackshirt Feeders in Dundy County would hold 100,000 cattle

By: - June 10, 2022 4:00 am

Cattle crowd inside a feedlot. (John Moore/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The state’s largest feedlot project is moving forward following an emotional, marathon public meeting in southwest Nebraska’s Dundy County.

But the 100,000-head Blackshirt Feeders feedlot project will have to comply with at least 10 conditions, tied to concerns about odor, dust and runoff of manure, under the conditional use permit given 3-0 approval Monday by the Dundy County Board.

“Myself and the team are pretty excited,” said Eric Behlke, a native of Benkelman and one of three Canadian veterinarians who specialize in feedlots behind the project.

Behlke called county approval the “first big hurdle” for the $65-million project. It is projected to employ 85 workers and consume up to 10 million bushels of corn a year when fully completed. It will be built in stages over a couple of years.

Not all enthused

Not everyone is enthused about the project. Concerns have been raised about nitrate contamination of local aquifers, whether there’s adequate groundwater to support such a huge feedlot and whether such a big operation will force out smaller, family-run feedlots in the area.

It poses a question many in agriculture face: “Do you get bigger, or get out?”

The Blackshirt Feeders site is about 23 miles north of Benkelman, near the Dundy-Chase County line. Monday’s nearly six-hour county board meeting had followed a series of full-house hearings over several months on the project.

Neighbor pitted against neighbor

“It was very controversial,” said Richard Bartholomew of Benkelman, vice chairman of the county board. “It pitted neighbors against neighbors and family members against family members.”

Bartholomew, who has questioned whether “bigger is better,” said he’d rather see five new, family-run feedlots of 20,000 cattle each than one corporate facility holding 100,000 head. He said county zoning rules basically dictated a “yes” vote by county board members if the facility complied with all zoning requirements.

The water situation, Bartholomew said, is a concern to everyone. He said he lives near the nitrate filtration plant that Benkelman had to install to ensure a safe drinking water supply for that community of 960.

But Behlke said the design of the feedlot will make it “one of the most environmentally friendly facilities in Nebraska and even nationally.”

The ‘nth’ degree

“We have gone to the nth degree to prevent groundwater problems and runoff,” he said.

The feedlot will be the first of its size in the U.S., according to Behlke, to be built on a base of “roller compacted concrete” instead of dirt. Lagoons will also be lined with the substance, he said.

The concrete surface, Behlke said, will make it easier to scrape and clean the feedlot and can better keep runoff from leaching into the soil.

 “It greatly reduces flies, dust and odor,” he added.

The manure will be used as fertilizer on area fields. There will be plenty of it — a feedlot steer can produce 75 pounds of manure a day, though about 90% of it is water, according to the University of Massachusetts.

Behlke said the plans for the feedlot must now win approval from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. And the Upper Republican Natural Resources District must sign off on Blackshirt’s water usage, which will require the project to retire about six center-pivot irrigation systems nearby to shift the water rights.

Ten conditions

Behlke said construction could begin as soon as this winter, if the weather cooperates.

The five-member Dundy County Planning Commission had recommended approval of a conditional use permit for the Blackshirt Feeders project with 13 conditions. Those conditions were amended into 10 by the county board. They are:

  1. Contingent upon an NDEE approval.
  2. Separation distances are subject to NDEE finding that the facility is an aerobic facility; otherwise, if anaerobic, then the separation distances need to be re-examined.
  3. There must be a fly and dust mitigation plan in place.
  4. The applicant shall have a road maintenance agreement with Dundy County prior to beginning construction.
  5. The facility will not be converted to a standard feedlot with dirt pens without modifying the conditional use permit and having a new public hearing.
  6. No dead animals shall be composted on the property.
  7. All water runoff and liquid waste shall be contained on site as proposed, and all grades shall be such as to create positive drainage from parts of the facility.
  8. The applicant shall provide an annual report and forward all complaints to Dundy County for review. 
  9. The applicant shall pay the defense deductible for NIRMA’s representation of the county if litigation should arise in regard to the conditional use permit.
  10. Pending NRD approval and/or water accessibility.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.