His cattle ration consists of about 17% "candy meal," a blend of chocolate bars and large chunks of chocolate. And that's not all, in this report about livestock producers feeding their animals human food because ethanol is driving up the price of corn. I'd love to read the whole article, but that damn Wall Street Journal is subscription-only.
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With Corn PricesRising, Pigs SwitchTo Fatty Snacks—On the Menus: Trail Mix,Cheese Curls, Tater Tots;Farmer Jones’s Ethanol Fix—-By Lauren Etter
Monday, May 21, 2007 2:00 AM
GARLAND, N.C. — When Alfred Smith’s hogs eat trail mix, they usually shun the Brazil nuts.
“Pigs can be picky eaters,” Mr. Smith says, scooping a handful of banana chips, yogurt-covered raisins, dried papaya and cashews from one of the 12 one-ton boxes in his shed. Generally, he says, “they like the sweet stuff.”
Mr. Smith is just happy his pigs aren’t eating him out of house and home. Growing demand for corn-based ethanol, a biofuel that has surged in popularity over the past year, has pushed up the price of corn, Mr. Smith’s main feed, to near-record levels. Because feed represents farms’ biggest single cost in raising animals, farmers are serving them a lot of people food, since it can be cheaper.
Besides trail mix, pigs and cattle are downing cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut-butter cups. Some farmers mix chocolate powder with cereal and feed it to baby pigs. “It’s kind of like getting Cocoa Puffs,” says David Funderburke, a livestock nutritionist at Cape Fear Consulting in Warsaw, N.C., who helps Mr. Smith and other farmers formulate healthy diets for livestock.
California farmers are feeding farm animals grape-skins from vineyards and lemon-pulp from citrus groves. Cattle ranchers in spud-rich Idaho are buying truckloads of uncooked french fries, Tater Tots and hash browns.
In Pennsylvania, farmers are turning to candy bars and snack foods because of the many food manufacturers nearby. Hershey Co. sells farmers waste cocoa and the trimmings from wafers that go into its Kit Kat bars. At Nissin Foods, maker of Top Ramen and Cup Noodles, farmers drive to a Lancaster, Pa., factory and load up on scraps of the squiggly dried noodles, which pile up in bins beneath the assembly line. Hiroshi Kika, a senior manager at the company, says the farm business is “very minor” but helps the company’s effort to “do anything to recycle.”
Other businesses called “jobbers” serve as middlemen, buying food that manufacturers would otherwise throw away, like burned or broken cookies, or cereal that contains too much sugar, and selling it to livestock operations. At Midwest Ingredients Inc. in Princeville, Ill., manager Ruthi Coats says more farmers are coming to her because, rather than feed corn they grow to livestock, they want to sell it on the market for those big prices.
Ideally, livestock producers like to feed their pigs and cattle a mixture consisting of about 70% corn, plus soybean meal, fat and vitamins. Corn provides protein, essential nutrients and amino acids that give animals energy and fatten them up. Historically, the livestock industry has consumed 60% of the nation’s corn crop.
Thanks to the ethanol rush, the price of a bushel of corn for months has hovered around $4 — nearly double the price of a few years ago. That has prompted livestock groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council to call for an end to federal ethanol subsidies, including a 51-cent-per-gallon tax credit offered to companies that blend gasoline with ethanol. For now, livestock must pay up or make do with alternatives.
On his farm in Garland, population 833, the 56-year-old Mr. Smith clenches a can of Mello Yello soda as he steers his blue 1992 Chevy pickup down an old railroad bed to his pens. There, about 1,000 oinking pigs plunge their snouts into troughs filled with corn, soybean meal and trail mix.
Mr. Smith says he’s paying about $63 to feed a single pig for five or six months before it goes to market — up 13% from last year. His costs would be even higher if he didn’t augment his feed with trail mix, which he says helps him save on average about $8 a ton on feed. This year, Mr. Smith has bought enough trail mix to feed about 5,000 hogs, and that will save him about $40,000.
He began feeding his hogs trail mix about a year ago, after Mr. Funderburke told him a local manufacturer was looking to dump surplus mix that was either too salty, sprinkled with cardboard or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Mr. Smith recently got a truckload of chocolate chips and his pigs seem to like them. “I’ve heard no complaints,” he says.
Sweet products, because they are high in energy, can be good for pigs and cattle, Mr. Funderburke says. Trail mix often contains chocolate and dried fruit, which supply sugar, and nuts, which provide fat and protein. But too much fat and salt from foods like potato chips can depress animals’ appetite and cause them to eat less. That isn’t good for producers who want to pack as many pounds as possible on their animals.
In many places outside the Corn Belt where farmers must bring corn in by rail or truck, trail mix and other fringe products have long been used to keep feed costs down. But as corn prices have risen, the practice has spread across the country.
In ethanol-producing states, some farmers have been able to mitigate high corn costs by feeding their animals dried distillers’ grains, a corn mash left over from ethanol production. But in states without ethanol plants, distillers’ grains aren’t always readily available. Also, many farmers say the product lacks sufficient nutrients. Others say their animals don’t like the taste.
Dwight Hess, a cattle feedlot operator in Marietta, Pa., is located in the heart of snack country, near Hershey and Herr Foods Inc., a maker of potato chips, pretzels and snack mixes. His cattle ration consists of about 17% “candy meal,” a blend of chocolate bars and large chunks of chocolate; 3% of what he calls “party mix,” a blend of popcorn, pretzels, potato chips and cheese curls; 8% corn gluten; and the remainder corn and barley he grows. He says the byproducts save him about 10% on feed costs. Still, it costs him about 65 cents to put a pound on a steer, up from 42 cents last year.
Near the Snake River in Idaho, Cevin Jones of Intermountain Beef is struggling to feed his 12,000 cattle in light of higher feed costs. Traditionally, he has used up to 30% corn or other grains in his feed mix. This year he’s using 100% byproducts, including french fries, Tater Tots and potato peels.
“It’s kind of funny,” Mr. Jones says, “every once in a while, you can spot a couple of cattle fighting over a whole potato.”
Because feeding them grass instead would be too…er…weird? Or something?
Kerri, that was my thought exactly. Is there some kind of national grass shortage? I suppose many of these farmers aren’t set up to let their cows forage anymore, and have become depend on feed systems year-round.
I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the food we are feeding our conventionally raised livestock is 1) mostly food stuff i would not eat. 2) so far off track from what their normal/proper diet is. i don’t see how the stomach of a cow can even digest the food stuff they are being offered.
My girlfriend’s family raises cattle in Oklahoma. There and in many other places in the country there is an extreme drought that has only recently let up at all. That’s one problem. A change in rainfall can drastically changed the amount of forage available.
Also, I think most people don’t really understand the economics of raising cattle and of agriculture in general, nor do they have any real experience or know anyone in who raises cattle. Most people get as close as the meat counter at the supermarket and no further, so let me weigh in with my limited personal experience.
Most land that is good for growing will be used to grow hay, corn, or whatever is most profitable for the farmer. Many ranchers (people who raise cattle), use land that is generally less suitable for farming (the land is cheaper) and will raise cattle that will spend most of their time foraging on whatever grasses grow naturally on the ranch land. Even if you husband your land and grass resources conservatively, you will need to use feed, use your hay reserves, or buy hay. For example, by fall and winter, most grass has stopped growing. What do you feed your herd at a time when they will use many calories to simply stay warm? Grass is not an option unless you have suitable hay reserves or buy hay for your entire herd. In a drought situation, hay is even more expensive. Remember that hay is expensive AND less nutritious. You will feed cattle food that is high in calories and nutrition. Your best bet when forage or hay is not an option is typically feed comprised of corn, sorghum, alfalfa, and powdered molasses. Feed bills are very expensive. Ranchers do not buy expensive feed because there is some conspiracy to feed people beef not raised on grass. Most would prefer to feed on forage year round if they could. The now popular “grass-fed beef” is a somewhat disingenuous since cattle eat grass most of their lives anyway until they are sold for slaughter.
Now, when cattle are sent to a feed lot to reach their finished weight this is where corn and feed really comes into play. Corn is very high in calories, very cheap, and efficiently adds muscle and fat (MEAT). So, for the last few weeks of their lives, cattle are fed corn to add fat and muscle. If you can use other, less expensive foods like chocolate mixed in with the feed to add muscle and fat, why wouldn’t you?
It’s my understanding that the cows are so stressed out after being at a corporate feed lot http://www.epa.gov/region7/water/cafo/index.htm
That they bring them to these smaller farms…feed ’em candy and Beer (not sure on that but I think thats what I heard) before the Slaughter…..Oh well off to Outback Steakhouse!!!!
Chris, thanks for offering more information and a different perspective. You’re right that many of us don’t know that much about what it’s like to raise cattle and I’m always interested in knowing more about how different people do it. Thanks.
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