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Agriculture and agribusiness are Nebraska's dominant industries. Ninety-six percent (47.1 million acres) of the state's land area is occupied by 55,000 farms and ranches. Over one-half of the states workers depend upon agriculture and business for their livelihood. The average growing season ranges from 170 days in southeast Nebraska to 120 days in the northwest. Underneath Nebraska is stored nearly 2 billion acre-feet of water, and in Nebraska we receive an average of 90 million acre-feed of precipitation yearly.
Approximately 17 million acres are utilized as cropland, of which approximately 8 million are irrigated. Corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and sorghum are the state's primary crops, but edible beans, sugar beets, popcorn, and oats are also prominently grown. Nebraska ranks first among the states in great northern bean and popcorn production, and third in corn, sorghum, and pinto bean production. Corn and winter wheat are grown statewide, while soybeans are produced in the eastern one-half of Nebraska. Sorghum is produced in the southeastern one-half of the state, and sugar beets and edible beans are produced in irrigated cropland in the western portion of the state.
Three-quarters of the state's farms and ranches have livestock or poultry operations, and cash receipts from those operations account for over 60% of the total farm income. Five and one-half percent of the nation's cattle herd is located in Nebraska, while nearly 17.5% of the herd is fed in the state's 9,400 feedlots. The state ranks second in the number of fed cattle both marketed and on feed, and third in the number of cattle and calves. The eastern one-third of the state accounts for 50% of state's fed cattle herd, while cow-calf operations predominate in the western two-thirds of Nebraska.
While Nebraska's dependence on a few agronomic crops and livestock is likely to continue far into the future, increasing attention is being paid to "alternative" crops and livestock. In Nebraska, anything other than corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, beef, and pork could be considered an alternative agricultural product. Some of these alternatives such as dry edible beans and sugar beets have been produced in Nebraska for many years. Of these alternative products, the ones with the greatest potential for increased importance appear to be poultry (both chickens and turkeys), popcorn, and oats. Other products such as fruits and vegetables, aquaculture (especially trout and salmon), amaranth, white corn, honey, and specialty legumes are receiving increased attention and statewide support. A few truly experimental crops such as crambe are also being pursued. These various pursuits may slowly change the focus of Nebraska's agricultural scene providing greater diversification.
Agribusiness continues to expand rapidly in Nebraska, employing thousands of people. Most of these firms process raw agricultural commodities into value added products. Consequently the raw product, when processed, adds not only additional jobs, but additional dollars for the Nebraska economy. National industries headquartered in Nebraska include ConAgra, Valmont, Iowa Beef, Lindsay Manufacturing, Farmers National, Behlen Manufacturing and many others. Many large firms also have operations here, including: Ford New Holland, Pioneer Hybrids, Farmland Industries, Cargill, Kellogg, and Campbell Soups. Most recently, Iowa Beef Processors has opened a new beef processing plant at Lexington, ConAgra has opened a new oat plant at Sioux City, and Campbell Soup is expanding a poultry processing base at Tecumseh.
All of these opportunities, both production and non-production, require a skilled labor and management force. Many will need to be educated in the area of agriculture and agribusiness at the secondary, postsecondary and adult levels. The Department of Agricultural Education, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, remains committed to preparing quality teachers and instructors to teach agriculture and agribusiness, to preparing individuals of all disciplines with leadership and human resource development skills and to preparing individuals for immediate employment in the rapidly expanding opportunities in agriculture and agribusiness.