The Associated Press
NOTTINGHAM, Pa. Feb. 3, 2003
If the black cattle at the Herr family farm seem eager at the trough, they have good reason. No mundane meal of corn and hay here. This feed is spiced with a snack food-lover's smorgasbord: potato chips, cheese curls and pretzels.
Blessed bovine elsewhere in Pennsylvania get even sweeter treats: chocolate balls and Frosted Mini-Wheats.
While cattle have been eating human food byproducts for years, more farmers this winter are filling the trough with snack food goodies, a money-saving solution to high corn prices caused by last summer's drought.
Industry experts say that because feeding livestock discarded human food saves money and helps the environment, Bessie will be munching on potato chips more often in the future.
"It's a win-win situation," said Harold Harpster, a professor of animal science at Penn State University. "It takes this food product out of the landfills and puts it into use feeding these livestock."
In Hawaii some cattle get the leftovers from a pineapple processing plant. Kansas cattle feast on sunflower seed hulls. In Nebraska and California they eat sugar beet pulp.
In Pennsylvania, cattle food is sometimes even more like people food. The Hershey's plant provides chocolate, a Kellogg's plant provides cereal and the Herr's snack food plant provides the chips.
The discarded foods are fine nutritionally, farmers are quick to point out. Potatoes are the main ingredient for chips, wheat for pretzels. The reasons they're discarded vary: the chips are overcooked or the cereal too old. Often the cattle snacks are swept off the factory floor.
Jim Herr bought his cattle farm 18 years ago primarily to have a place to discard snack food plant leftovers from his family's business. The thousands of gallons of water used to wash potatoes now hydrate the hay crop, for instance.
The daily diet for his 650 cattle is heavily supplemented by the nearby snack food plant. The cattle eat 15 pounds of potato peelings, 15 pounds of corn, eight pounds of hay and four pounds of "steer party mix" chips, popcorn, pretzels and cheese curls. It's all mixed together in a blender the size of a large van.
That mixture is nutritionally analyzed by a lab several times a year. Farm manager Dennis Byrne says he can tell how much his steer like it by how fast they get to the trough.
"There's a lot of science to how the cattle are going to be fed, but there's also an art. You have to create a blend the cattle will go after," Byrne said. "They eat better than we do because we control their diet. They eat what they should eat."
Most farm animals eat human food at some point in their lives, farmers say, although the practice is most common with cattle because of their tough digestive systems.
Harpster and the farmers say the quality of the beef or milk isn't affected. Byrne notes the Herr cattle grade out in the top 8 percent of all beef as Certified Angus Beef.
Livestock eating human food is most common in the east, where more food processing plants are located, Harpster said. He expects the practice to widen as food processors face increasing environmental pressures and farmers face increasing economic ones.
Shelia Stannard, a spokeswoman for the American Angus Association, agrees.
"I'd say it's going to continue the upward trend," Stannard said. "The cattle might as well eat something that we're not going to eat."
Dwight Hess, a farmer near Marietta, feeds his cattle cereals from a local Kellogg's plant, and even chocolate and peanut butter sources of needed fats and protein.
"It's senseless, putting a very high quality human grade food product into a landfill," he said. "We're producing a premium product and I'm proud of what we do."
The Herr cattle get the steer party mix no matter what the corn prices are, but Byrne said during a year of high prices corn now costs about twice as much as in other years his farm enjoys a marketplace advantage.
His competitors know it. Bryne said he's gotten a lot of calls this winter from other farmers wanting to buy excess party mix. They're calling at the right time his stocks are up from increased Super Bowl production. The party mix now sits in a pile 6 feet high and 30 feet deep in his barn.
Stannard notes that farmers have always been good recyclers. She says using human food for livestock is just another way to conserve.
"This year's been especially tough on cattle farmers, so anything they can do to find a cheaper feed source, they're going to do," she said.
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