Welcome to Nebraska, part of the core of America’s heartland, a food supplier to the world, and one of the strongest farming states in the nation. At about 210 by 430 miles across, Nebraska boasts an immense amount of incredibly rich, fertile land. Let’s take a look at three of the highlights that make Nebraska an amazing place to live, work, and own property. We’ll look at the areas of crop production, beef production, and entrepreneurship.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the role that agriculture plays in Nebraska. Perhaps most notably, Nebraska has the most irrigated acres of any state in the nation, thanks to large underground aquifers beneath the state. With 8,588,389 acres of irrigated land (as of the most recent USDA agricultural survey in 2017), Nebraska is even ahead of California, which has 7,833,593 irrigated acres. For the farmer who wants the stability and predictability that irrigation brings, it’s hard to find a better option than Nebraska. However, even dryland acres in Nebraska produce relatively high yields, thanks to fertile soils, optimally timed rainfall, and abundant flat ground that makes farming more efficient. Crop sales in Nebraska in 2017 amounted to an incredible $9.2 billion.
In addition to producing excellent crops, Nebraska is also a major beef producing state, with more than three cattle for every person in the state. In 2017, sales of 7,508,695 cattle and calves totaled $10.7 billion (1), outranking crops as a contributor to Nebraska GDP. Nebraska also ranks top in the nation for beef and beef product exports (2).
The hardworking, resilient spirit of farming and ranching also extends to entrepreneurship in Nebraska. Nebraska as a whole has a more highly educated population than other states in the US. The state has a favorable entrepreneurial climate for high-growth businesses, thanks to the 2011 Nebraska Business Innovation Act (LB 387). This act created programs to assist Nebraska entrepreneurs and innovators who aimed to create high-growth businesses, create products, and hire employees (3). Nebraska has also traditionally experienced a lower level of unemployment and less extreme fluctuations in unemployment than the rest of the United States (4).
Thinking of relocating to Nebraska farm or ranch land? Keep watching for upcoming articles, where we will take a deeper dive into everything related to buying rural real estate in Nebraska. In the meantime, please check out the Nebraska listings on the American Land Broker website.
The state of Nebraska is approximately 49 million acres and has long been known as a fertile agriculture state, with flourishing, highly productive farms and ranches. However, not all the land in Nebraska is created equal. There are different regions of Nebraska that are better suited for different uses. One distinctive feature of the state is that the land gradually rises from East to West, from the lowest point (840 feet) on the Eastern edge and the highest point (5424 feet) near the border with Wyoming and Colorado in the southwest corner of the panhandle—a 4,584 foot elevation difference. With this rise in elevation comes a corresponding gradual decrease in rainfall, with the east side of the state being wetter by an average of 1 inch per 25 miles , resulting in a diverse set of agricultural conditions across the state. If you’re looking to buy land in Nebraska, this article can form a starting point to help you to identify the areas that may serve your needs better than others. So let’s look at the differences between Eastern Nebraska, Western Nebraska, and the Sand Hills.
The far-eastern edge of Nebraska is bordered by the Missouri River, which forms the entirety of the state line on the east side of the state as well as a small section of the state’s northeastern border. The Platte River runs from west to east across the state, much of it roughly following the course of I-80. Most of Nebraska’s population is concentrated near the Missouri and Platte rivers, with the three most populous cities being Omaha, Lincoln, and Bellevue, so if you’re looking for larger cities, non-farm income sources, or a smaller farm supplemented by other income, the eastern edge of the state might be for you. Lancaster County (where Lincoln, NE is located) is the county with the most small farms (0-179 acres), the smallest average farm size, and the highest number of farms with harvested cropland.
In terms of agriculture, the eastern 100 miles of the state (from the Missouri River to approximately latitude 98) is a region known as the Dissected Till Plains, covering about 30 counties . The Dissected Till Plains are characterized by gently rolling hills and deep soils deposited by ancient glaciers. This area, and the area of Western Nebraska south of the Platte River, also marks the far western edge of the corn belt that stretches across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
In this part of the state, fertile soils and abundant water lead to many versatile uses. For example here are some production numbers for these Eastern Nebraska Counties:
- Cuming County has the highest market value of agricultural products sold ($1.1 billion) & highest net profit in the state ($167 million), as well as the most cattle and calves sold (568,098).
- York County produced the most bushels of corn in the state, with 42,599,071 bushels.
- Saunders County produced the most soybeans in the state, with 9,634,654 bushels.
- Gage and Hamilton counties dominate the chicken industry in the state, with Gage having the most layers and Hamilton having the most meat chickens (although the new Costco chicken plant in Dodge county is likely to change that).
- Platte County has almost 17% of the hogs & pigs in the state, while only comprising 0.85% of the land in the state.
[All numbers from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, released in April 2019]
In Western Nebraska, the Dissected Till Plains gives way to a region of the Great Plains known as the High Plains. In this region of Nebraska, treeless prairie stretches for miles, suitable for cattle-grazing and crops such as wheat and sunflowers. Thanks to irrigation, much corn is also grown in this region. However, even though there is less precipitation than in the east, the rainfall is still sufficient to pursue many kinds of dryland farming without irrigation.
In Western Nebraska, the population is far more sparse. In fact, the five least-populated counties in Nebraska all make the list of the ten least-populated counties in the United States. Though the populations are small, a family-friendly atmosphere pervades the towns of Western Nebraska, with grain elevators dotting the landscape marking the location of many of these towns.
Western Nebraska is particularly productive in the counties surrounding the Platte River, where irrigation opportunities abound and many large farming operations leverage economies of scale, better equipment, and modern technological innovations to draw high productivity from the land.
Here are some highlights of agricultural production in Western Nebraska:
- Cheyenne County produced the most winter wheat in the state, with 5,948,461 bushels.
- Sheridan County produced the most spring wheat (35,731 bushels, which was 38% of all the spring wheat in the state).
- Hitchcock County produced the most sorghum in the state, at 1,147,308 bushels.
- Scotts Bluff County produced the most dry edible beans, with 1,079,223 cwt.
- Cherry County produced the most hay and forage in the state, with 389,603 tons.
- Sheridan County produced the most sunflower seeds with 9,789,045 pounds.
- Box Butte County produced the most sugar beets, with 637,448 tons, which was 45% of all the sugar beets in the state.
[All numbers from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, released in April 2019]
One distinctive region of Western Nebraska that we will explore next is the Sandhills region.
The Nebraska Sandhills
The Nebraska Sandhills are sand dunes 25-400 feet high covered in grass. The Sandhills area covers almost one-fourth of the land in the state of Nebraska, mostly in the north-central portion of the state. Due to fragile soils, much of the Sandhills area has never been plowed, giving the area great biodiversity that benefits from enormous continuous stretches of land . This area of sloping hills and valleys is a beautiful part of the state, dotted with many lakes and home to many species as well as the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
While the Sandhills region is not suited for crops, it is a productive cattle ranching area, supporting over 530,000 beef cattle  thanks to strong native grasses and careful land management techniques. Recent years have brought ever-better land management practices, leading to less erosion of this extraordinary area. One of the risks of erosion is a phenomenon called “blowouts,” where lack of grass in an area destabilizes the sand, exposing it to the wind, which then blows the sand away, leaving a scoop-shaped depression in the ground . The preservation of this unique region is an important priority for landowners to maintain its productivity.
If you are looking for property in the Sandhills, make sure you perform adequate soil testing and research the historical productivity of the farm to ensure that the soil fertility will meet your needs. Especially along the edges of the Sandhills, there may be a gradient of varied soil qualities, as the exact boundaries of the Sandills are defined differently by different organizations.
Looking for Nebraska Agricultural Land?
If you’re looking to relocate your farm or ranch operation to Nebraska, hopefully this article has been helpful to identify some of the portions of the state that would be good for your needs. If you have more specific requirements to discuss and would like more customized advice, please call Marv Van Houten at (308) 360-1776 or fill out the contact form on our website. We will be happy to help you, answer your questions, and get started with your property search.