As corn prices rise, farmers add candy to cows' feed

Cattle eat a ration of feed on a farm near Cuba, Ill. Substitutes for expensive corn feed range from the unprocessed -- straw and cottonseed hulls -- to a teenager's diet -- ice cream, chocolate and gummy worms.

This year's drought is pushing up food prices and, no doubt, influencing what you eat. It turns out the drought is influencing what American dairy and beef cows are eating, too. Most of them eat a diet of corn feed, but with corn prices at record highs this past summer, many farmers are looking for a "sweeter" deal.

Kansas dairy farmer Orville Miller says he's replacing about 5 percent of his cow feed with chocolate. "Cows love chocolate," Miller says. "When I feed the cows they go nosing through their total mixed ration trying to find pieces of chocolate and they'll eat those out first."

Miller also feeds his cows taco shell rejects. Ki Fanning at Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Nebraska says others are substituting cereal, french fries, ice cream sprinkles, marshmallows, cookies and even gummy worms. "Cattle can utilize gummy worms just the same way we can," says Fanning. "They put on a lot of weight with those products because they're high in sugar."

Where does all the cheap starchy sugar come from? Bran Dill works for a company that sells candy "salvage" to farmers and ranchers. He says companies want to get rid of product that has been broken or spoiled in some way. Dill says prices for broken chocolate have more than doubled from $60-$80 a ton to about $200 a ton because of the demand but it's still cheaper than corn, for now.

Other "salvage" food that farmers and ranchers are buying is cereal that's accidentally oversugared, says Ki Fanning.

Some farmers are sticking with more traditional substitutes, like straw that's normally used for animal bedding, distillers' grain and damaged potatoes. Wisconsin dairy agent Nolan Andersen says cows find raw potato rather bland so some farmers add molasses to sweeten it up.

"It's kind of like adding a little sugar on top of that cereal," says Andersen. "You can get 'em to eat almost anything that way."

Some groups criticize farmers and ranchers for feeding livestock chocolate and the like. Marilyn Noble at the American Grassfed Association says, "Cows were meant to eat grass, not candy."

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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