Agricultural Systems and

Economic Characteristics of the Great Plains


Melvin D. Skold

Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics

Colorado State University

In this briefing paper we will review the nature and importance of the agricultural sector in the Great Plains and some demographic and economic characteristics of the region. The economic activity which exists and the associated settlement patterns have evolved in response to the prevailing climatic regime.

The Great Plains is a vast and diverse area. The 10 states which include the Great Plains cover almost one-third of the U.S. land mass. Most of the Great Plains is semi-arid. Because of its size and geographic definition, the region has dramatic extremes in elevation, temperature, precipitation, and in wind direction and velocity. The growing season varies from 110 to more than 300 days. Annual precipitation averages from 12 to more than 30 inches (30-76 cm.).

Because of this diversity, the agricultural systems and technologies found in the region are also varied. The semi-arid character results in important parts of the region being on the extensive margin between cropping and livestock grazing. Further, year-to-year variability in precipitation gives rise to strategies which make risk management important. Because of the limited and uncertain nature of precipitation, any climatic change will have pronounced impacts on much of the Great Plains.

When discussing the agricultural systems of the Great Plains, it becomes apparent that one must distinguish between the Great Plains States and the sub-parts of those 10 states which constitute the Great Plains. The Great Plains States include areas which are neither semi-arid nor plains. The Great Plains Agricultural Council defined a 396-county region which it considered to be the Great Plains Proper (GPP). The GPP is bounded on the west by the Rocky Mountains and extends east to approximately the 98th meridian where the mixed-grass true prairies give way to the tall grass prairies further east. The southern boundary separates the panhandle of Texas from the remainder of the state (Kraenzel 1995; Skold 1995).

The economic and demographic trends of this 396-county portion of the Great Plains States also differs in many ways from the aggregates for the 10-state region. Some of these differences are directly due to the climate-imposed differences in agricultural systems that have evolved within the GPP. It is important to recognize these differences within the 10 Great Plains States since examination of state- and regional-level data for the 10-states can be very misleading.

Agriculture. The Great Plains States include 705 million acres--over one-half of

which is grassland pasture and range and a mix of native (unbroken) rangelands and improved pastures. Almost 200 million acres are classified as cropland of which over 20 million acres are irrigated. The GPP contains even greater proportions of grasslands used only for grazing than the whole of the Great Plains States.

The Great Plains States have about 25% of the farms in the U.S. and the GPP includes about 105 of the nation's farms. Farms in the GPP average three times larger than the U.S. average and 50% larger than the average for the 10 states which include the region. The average value of product sales per farm is greater in the GPP than the per farm sales in the U.S. and the Great Plains States, but not in proportion to the differences in acres per farm. Sale of livestock is much more important than sale of crops in the mix of products sold per farm in the GPP than is the case for the Great Plains States or the U.S.

Even though livestock are more important than crops in the Great Plains, the region is very important for crop production. The 10 states produce 87% of the nation's grain sorghum; the GPP is credited with 40% of the nation's total. The Great Plains States produce 61% of the nation's wheat, and over 51% of the national total is produced in the GPP. The percentages of U.S. production of other crops in the Great Plains States and GPP are, respectively: corn, 21% and 13%; cotton, 36% and 22%; barley, 54% and 36%; and oats, 31% and 14%. The 10 states produce over one-half of the nation's feed grains and the GPP alone supplies over one-third of the nation's feed grain production.

About 60% of the nation's cattle and calves are found in the Great Plains States and the GPP in home to over 40% of the nation's total. Fed cattle marketed is even more concentrated in the Great Plains. Approximately 75% of fed cattle marketed come from the 10-state region, and most of cattle feeding occurs in the GPP.

Agricultural production occurs under five major production systems: (1) range livestock, (2) crop fallow, (3) groundwater irrigated, (4) river valley irrigated, and (5) confined livestock feeding. Although each of the five systems is a distinct type of resource use and farming system, considerable variation exists within each system. Most farms possess some combination of two or more production systems. Variations within each system are associated with geographic, topographic, and climatic patterns of the specific area (Skold 1995).

Each production system will be uniquely effected by climatic change. The productivity of the range livestock and crop fallow systems are directly dependent on the prevailing climate patterns. The length of the grazing season, the amount of hay reserves required, and the livestock management systems used are a function of climate. The crop fallow system exists, in part, as a way to capture and store limited amounts of precipitation as soil water. Changes in precipitation amounts and patterns as well as changes in temperatures will effect the effectiveness of summer fallowing.

Groundwater irrigated systems rely mostly on stocks of water in underground aquifers. The rate at which these aquifers are depleted and the application efficiency of the water application systems are also affected by climate.

The river valley irrigated systems are heavily dependent on snow melt from the Rocky Mountains. Thus, evaluation of the effects of climatic change on the Great Plains must include estimates of changes in mountain snowfall and runoff.

The livestock feeding industry is dependent on a reliable supply of feed grains. Further, excessive cold or heat and/or extreme temperature variation stresses cattle. Climatic change could easily influence the comparative advantage of the region as a location for livestock feeding.

Population. The GPP largely consists of sparsely populated counties. Over one-half of the counties located in the GPP are classified as rural or having a population of <2,500. Because they include the GPP, the 10 states encompassing the Great Plains, 39% of the 10-state region's counties are rural as compared to only 20% rural counties in the remainder of the U.S.

From 1969-91, the population of the Great Plains states increased by 41% as compared to a population increase of only 23% in the non-Great Plains states. The population of the GPP increased by 16% during this period. But, this modest growth is not uniform. Most of the population growth in the GPP occurred in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, largely associated with urbanization along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The populations of the GPP portions of Nebraska and North Dakota declined during this period. Almost 60% of the people living in the GPP live in Texas, Colorado, and Kansas.

Within the GPP there has been a shift of population away from nonmetropolitan areas toward metropolitan areas. Populations of the 26 metropolitan counties increased sharply until the mid-1980s and then followed a more slow growth trend. Population in the nonmetro counties increased slowly until the early 1980s and has declined since to where fewer people lived in the nonmetro GPP in 1991 than lived there in 1969 (Adcock 1994).

Income and Employment. Being predominately nonmetropolitan, the GPP is highly dependent on agriculture. Petroleum production is also important in the rural GPP. When petroleum and agricultural commodity prices declined in the 1980s, the impacts were felt throughout the 10-state region. Agriculture makes up about 20% of total labor and proprietor income for the 10 GP states whereas it averages about 57% for the GPP.

The vulnerability of the GPP to agricultural product and petroleum prices is most evident when it is noted that the GPP is more than six times as dependent on farming and mining (mostly petroleum) than is the rest of the U.S. Alternatively, the GPP is less dependent on the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors and the service sector than the U.S. economy.

It should not be concluded that income from services is not important in the GPP since it accounts for over 1/3 of the income from jobs in the region. Services is the leading source of employment for the GPP, followed by the government sector and retail trade. The GPP greatly lags behind the rest of the U.S. in providing jobs in manufacturing, and it is much more dependent on agricultural and mining jobs than is the rest of the U.S. (Adcock 1994).

Implications. The economy and settlement of Great Plains States and the GPP have adapted to the historic climatic pattern. The region is strongly dependent on two primary industries--agriculture and mining. Both are subject to "boom and bust" cycles which add to the instability of the region.

Relative to other parts of the U.S., the region lacks a significant manufacturing sector. The Great Plains tends to import the manufactured goods used in production and exports raw products to be processed in other areas. Unlike the midwestern and southeastern states, small towns are almost totally dependent on the economic base of the primary industries. Few non-agricultural jobs exist and the local companies vary with the economic health of the basis sectors which they serve. Since climate plays a large role in defining the resource use patterns in the Great Plains, likely no region in the U.S. is more vulnerable to climatic change.

Adcock, D.P., "The Dynamics of the People and Economy of the Great Plains" in Proceedings, Great Plains Agricultural Council, Bismarck, ND. 1994. Pp. 75-84.

(See other papers in this Proceedings for other characteristics and trends relative to the Great Plains economy)

(The Great Plains Agricultural Council produced a number of publications related to all aspects of agriculture and the rural Great Plains. An occasional paper in the annual Proceedings issue may contain a paper directly related to climate change. The Colorado State University library has a complete collection. Other Land Grant University libraries in the region may also have complete collections.)

Kraenzel, C.F., The Great Plains in Transition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 1955.

Skold, M.D., "Agricultural Systems and Technologies in the Great Plains" in Conservation of Great Plains Ecosystems: Current Science, Future Options, S.R. Johnson and

A. Bouzaher, Editors. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston. 1995. Pp. 343-364. (Each of the chapters in this book addresses an aspect of the Great Plains ecosystem)