HOLDREGE — Livestock production has a $616 million economic impact and is responsible for providing all or part of 1,500 jobs in Phelps County, according to a recent study by Nebraska Public Power District economist Brian Williams.

The study, based on figures from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, provides a more complete picture of the breadth of Phelps County’s strong agriculture sector and provides guidance for future development.

Phelps County Development Corporation Executive Director Ron Tillery said in a press release, “We are well-positioned to add diversity of production as well as expand what we have. We need to be prepared for it and plan for it. This information gives us something to start with.”

Williams’ report shows that livestock production, mainly cattle, has an overall $616,054,519 economic impact in Phelps County.

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“How would we react to a new industrial prospect that would create a $600 million impact on our county?” Tillery said. “I think we would be excited about that.”

The report includes details on economic effects livestock production has on other local business sectors:

- Local hospital, $7.6 million;

- Restaurants, $2.5 million;

- Motor vehicle sales and parts dealers, $1.6 million.

According to the ag census, Phelps County sold $578.2 million in crops and livestock in 2017 with $406 million of that total from livestock. The average of $1.5 million per farm ranks Phelps County first among Nebraska’s 93 counties for per-farm value of products sold.

The NPPD report also estimates that 428 employees in the county work directly in raising livestock. Another 964 people are employed indirectly to support livestock production.

Local ag producer and PCDC board member Reed McClymont said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings because he always knew that Phelps County ranked high in ag production.

“I think the report shows we’ve got a livestock mentality in Phelps County in addition to having a lot of top-notch grain operations. So we need to, in my opinion, play on those strengths,” McClymont said. “Hopefully, we can attract some other livestock businesses to the county.”

Tillery said the numbers also demonstrate the scope of the industry in the county and region to livestock-related processing companies.

“We should play to our strengths when it comes to economic development,” he said. “We should do whatever we can to improve conditions that affect existing or future operations including the regulatory environment. Like all industry, this is an evolving business sector and Phelps County should be at the cutting edge to promote responsible livestock development.”

Tillery said the report also may help existing ag producers make informed decisions about their growth and future investments. He also mentioned its value to other “main street” businesses that rely on livestock operators as customers and to other civic leaders in Phelps County.

“I think there are some policy issues that we need to look at as a county to be sure we are well-prepared for expansion by existing operators or new operations that are interested in our area,” Tillery said. “... We need to protect and nurture this important business sector, and we need to grow responsibly.”

Dairy and poultry are two areas where he sees opportunities for growth.

McClymont said dairy could be “real attractive” for local ag producers because their need for corn and alfalfa would add value to crops local farmers already are producing.

Tillery also sees opportunities as major food suppliers look for alliances with ag producers, with the Costco-Lincoln Premium Poultry project in Fremont as one example. He said food industry trends point to more such vertical integration development.

Meat processors likely will gravitate to larger population centers due to the need for more available workers, Tillery said, but companies that use ag byproducts, such as pet food processors, may look to grow in places like Phelps County.

“There are multiple livestock-related growth opportunities in front of us,” he said. “We must be ready and we must be willing to provide visible support and encouragement to the risk-takers and investors.”