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Why are cows fed corn?

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Or for that matter, why are cows fed anything but grass? Recently, livestock was actually being fed candy! You can’t make this stuff up. At least, I can’t make this stuff up. I suppose it makes a bit of sense, considering there was a drought and corn was too expensive.

There has been an interesting and somewhat disastrous evolution of the feeding of cattle moving from small farms to CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations). How can feeding cattle grain shipped from external sources in a CAFO be cheaper than raising them at small farms where they are eating grass and other pasture? This is impossible without subsidies and externalizing costs. The main factors that contribute to this are the subsidized grains that are shipped in, antibiotic usage which promote drug-resistant bacteria, and the extreme concentration of manure which cause both water and air pollution. For hog production, including environmental compliance and accounting for the full cost of feed experienced by regular farms, CAFO’s become 20% more expensive, or 10% more than small farms.[i]

Policy discussions regarding subsidies and their effect on farmers and food security, notwithstanding, how did this happen in the first place? From all the topics I’ve researched over the years, I’ve always found that there was a compelling reason that made sense that was just warped over time. This is no exception. History is a difficult topic, but this is the account I’ve uncovered so far.

This story takes us back to Wisconsin on a blustery winter day in the mid-1800’s. Wisconsin was primarily a grain growing state, not yet become “America’s Dairyland”. Dairying was only an occupation for a few months of the year and animals were sometimes slaughtered before the winter due to the difficulty of feeding them through the cold months. After all, the problem of extending the milking season is primarily a problem of food. Not only do cows need to have enough food to survive, but a healthy surplus to give milk. Through the innovation of a few farmers, who fed a variety of crops that had different maturation ages instead of just pasture, Wisconsin dairymen were shown that winter dairying was indeed possible. However, this method could extend the season, but not keep the cows milking throughout the winter.

The next step in the evolution of feeding was the silo which was brought from Europe. An ancient practice of burying greens till the cattle needed to eat them was popularized by Auguste Goffart in 1877. He published the results of his improved method which reduced the amount of labor in his book “Manuel de la culture et de l’ensilage des mais et autres fourrages verts” (Manual for the ensilage of corn and other greens)[ii]. The first silos were built in Wisconsin in the mid-1870’s and were essentially large rectangular pits with various lining. Later on, they would become above ground and circular. There were multiple benefits from the silo. From experiments in Wisconsin, with the ensilage method in the 1880’s, cows could be fed at 1/3 the price and kept milking throughout the winter. Ensilage, due to it’s natural fermentation effect, is favorable for a cow’s digestion and health and also allows for a uniform quality of feed during the winter season. It allowed for the reduction in the insurance as less space was used to store food in a silo than when cured and enabled farmers to preserve a greater amount of food than able before. Furthermore, it allowed clearing the land and planting winter grains earlier, gave usefulness to crops unfit for curing, and allowed a higher density of cattle on the same land. Naturally, adoption of the silo, however, took much longer than that even with the remarkable successes of a few farmers.

First, a public demonstration of the utility of silage would be necessary. This was undertaken by Dean Henry of the College of Agriculture who gained some public funding for the test. A silo of 27 feet by 12 by 15 was constructed in 1881 to gain some traction for the method. Unfortunately, due to the imperfections of the silo construction, the silage was not of very good quality and several of the dozen cows in the experiment would not eat it. The experiment was a failure. Thus, the adoption of the silo was slow, but then grew exponentially. With the census estimates, in 1888, there was 100 silos in the entire country, by 1904 there were 716 in Wisconsin, and in 1915 reported 55,992 in the state.[iii]

Specialization wins economically and so it was with milk, too. Slowly, selective breeding for milk production took place and the general purpose cow vanished. Holsteins and Ayshires for large quantities of milk and primarily for cheese, Jerseys for their creamy milk from which to make butter, and other varieties for their beef. Naturally, the next step in scientific agriculture production was the understanding what feed was best for what breed of cow. Unfortunately, or fortunately, there was no such thing as nutritional science in the 19th century. Farmers generally fed their livestock a variety of grasses, corns, and other grains. Systematic feeding and animal nutrition may have been created by Emil von Wolff in Saxony[iv] and then popularized by Henry in the US with his book “Feeds and Feeding”.[v] Man, Google Books is awesome.

This brings us to the “Single-Grain Experiment” conducted at University of Wisconsin from 1907 to 1911.[vi] Four groups of heifers were given either rations entirely of corn, wheat, oat, or a combination of the three. The corn-fed did better than the other groups, but it’s instructive to read the source completely at this point and ignore wikipedia as the results of the experiment don’t quite jive. And lo and behold in the notes of the paper, “In his autobiography, McCollum (1957) pointed out that he and others connected with the project had overlooked the fact that, in harvesting the crops used to prepare the experimental rations, the leaves of the corn and oat crops largely remained intact. However, the wheat leaves were so fragile that virtually all were lost. Thus, ‘We actually fed [some of] the cows wheat grain and straw.’ In the many other references to this noted experiment the fortuitous flaw has been overlooked.” Science is tough. In any case, the nutritional field of science was born.

Which finally, I believe brings us back full-circle, where we now feed our cattle candy, irrespective of any scientific analysis. Another item to note is that the corn that the Wisconsin farmers used was local, included the leaves, and was in no way processed, unlike the corn now. Economics plays the primary role in how the cattle are fed, and it’s cheaper due to subsidies to feed livestock composition of corn and soy without regard for the external costs to the environment and health of the animals. Specialization helps to a certain extent, but overspecialization creates systems that aren’t resilient. Silage and feeding a variety of crops to cows to have milk production during winter has now morphed into CAFO’s and an entirely different set of problems due to overspecialization. So to conclude, it actually does make a bit of sense that cows are fed corn, just not as much as they are now.

tl;dr – To keep cows milking throughout the winter, cows began to be fed corn among other silaged crops. What started as a necessity has now has raged out of control.

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  1. Living high on the hog: factory farms, federal policy, and the structural transformation of swine production – Starmer, Wise (2007) []
  2. []
  3. The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin; a study in agricultural change, 1820-1920 – Lampard, Eric . Chapter 6 []
  4. []
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  6. Experiments That Changed Nutritional Thinking. Carpenter, Harper, Olson. 1997 . []
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