And the cow says, “PULEEEZE, force feed me that corn!  Right now!  More corn please!’

By Gene Hall

Among the folks who really get excited–and negative–about how we feed the world today with modern agriculture, one of the most grossly inaccurate charges that arises has started to surface once again in web discussions. I guess it’s this week’s “activist message of the day.”

This robotic talking point was originally drafted by people who had to know it was a lie, but it’s been repeated so often that those who use it now and passionately believe it do not understand it is not true.

It’s really two talking points that usually travel together:

1. Corn is not a cow’s natural food and it makes them sick.
2. A cow’s natural food is grass. We force feed them corn to make them fat.

If you follow the food debate online you’ve heard this. The trouble is, it is almost completely nonsense. What is a cow’s natural food? Well, I’d say it’s a food that they will eat naturally if given the opportunity to do so. Grass? Yes. Corn? Also yes.

An image is fostered in the anti-agriculture activist world of cattle never allowed to eat grass, from calfhood to processing, “force fed” corn and grain sorghum, allowed to get sick, pumped full of drugs and ran straight into the processing plant.

Again, it’s a lie. Nearly every bovine raised for beef or dairy production is grass fed—at least for some part of its life. I’m not saying anything against grass fed beef. It’s not my preference, but there is nothing wrong with it. But, even grain fed cattle are grass fed for the first six to eight months of life. Only then do we take the animals to the feedlot for finishing with diets that include grain. Even in the feedlot, significant amounts of grass, in the form of hay, are fed along with grain rations.

Force feeding cattle? This is laughably untrue. Take an ear of corn, and try to force feed it to a feedlot steer or a dairy cow. Be careful though. Count your fingers. They will wolf it down and beg for another.

Cows LOVE corn; I don’t get this “It makes them sick” nonsense. Cows, in close proximity to other cows, get sick sometimes—like people do. Cowboys on horseback ride the feedlots constantly watching for this. When he finds one, it’s isolated for awhile and treated, again, like people. There are strict rules against sending animals to market until these drugs are metabolized out of their system.

Corn is not a natural food for cows? To refute this, I have to take you on yet another magical journey to the East Texas farm of my youth. We raised our own feed for our cattle, ignorant of the allegation that it was not their “natural food.”

As the corn matured and dried into ears perfect for cattle feed, I received stern warnings to never leave the gate open. Alas, I did make that mistake a few times. Guess what happened? The herd would walk out of their knee-high grass—their “natural food”—and eat from the corn field until they could hold no more. They will pick the corn nearly every single time; even usually over flavorful grasses like clovers and alfalfa.

We can have this argument until the cows come home, but there are irrefutable facts here.  There is not enough land in the world to grow enough grass for animal protein to meet the growing world demand. We need the efficiency of confined operations and high energy rations of grain.

But, there are some places that will grow only grass. And processing it into beef and milk with cows is the only way humans can utilize it.

I don’t know whether to call the people that push this nonsense adversaries or enemies of agriculture. I suspect it’s borne of the larger anti-corporate movement and an unreasonable belief that no one should make a profit from growing food. But, we’ll continue that conversation another time. Thought for the day: Force feeding corn to a cow is like force feeding hamburger to a Doberman.

Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
Follow Gene on Twitter and Facebook.

14 Responses to “And the cow says, “PULEEEZE, force feed me that corn! Right now! More corn please!’”

  1. Billy B. Brown says:

    Force feed me some Bluebell ice cream and I will be contented as the cattle on their corn diet.

  2. Bluebell and corn – Breakfast of Champions! For people and cows.

  3. Very, very true. Our cows jump the fence from their lush green grass to pick over the cornfield many times throughout the summer…much to the dismay of my husband and our neighbors!

  4. John Gerber says:

    Your argument is not very convincing. I would prefer to see a science based refutation of the claim that corn makes cows sick if you are serious about convincing intelligent readers of your own counter claim. Simply stating that a claim is untrue based an observation of a cow eating corn is interesting but is no more convincing than the claim you are attempting to refute. Surely you can do better!

    John Gerber

  5. Well John, your point is well taken. I am not a scientist, just a writer and PR guy. Moreover, I do not have the budget to conduct a peer reviewed scientific study…However, in my absent minded youthful indescretion of leaving the gate open, I inadvertently conducted a scientific experiement in a part of Texas where 50 inches a year of rain sometimes falls (not this year) The grass was indeed, knee high. Anyone can conduct a high school level experiment by putting cows in a field of grass and pouring corn in a trough. This is not normally done, since the corn is saved until the grass is scarce. I am, however, entitled to write about my personal experiences.

    Also, absent any proof that corn makes cows sick – only allegations – I don’t know that I need to prove it doesn’t. Nice post – thought provoking. Hope to see you post more.

  6. How can you refute that cows eating corn which was planted in abundance and neat rows in close proximity to their pen "natural" ??? If that corn were not planted there by humans (and machines) a cow would NOT go searching for a cornfield! Just because they are willing to eat it and it is convenienet, does not make it a natural and healthy diet, case in point: your last sentence.

  7. Lou, corn is an improved grass, genetically speaking. Grasses are improved too. Much of the grass planted on modern ranchers are improved varieties. Corn IS natural in that given the choice, they will eat it. It is no more unhealthy for them than grass. I.E. bloat from eating too much fresh green grass. Remember, virtually all cattle are fed grass. They are just finished on corn and other feed grains. Remember, my key point is the "force feeding" business. It just doesn’t happen. I’ve got a whole lot of personal experience to add to this discussion. Been there, seen most of what happens on ranches and in feedlots.

  8. Skeptical says:

    Kids will also generally reach for ice cream and donuts before carrots and broccoli. Even before steak. That doesn’t mean it’s natural or healthy to base their diets on junk food. I mean, there are scientific studies galore that show the deterioration of our health with the abundance and convenience of junk food. Which is how I view corn for cows – high-calorie junk that fattens them up, but isn’t the best nutritional choice – for them or for us, who consume the meat.

  9. Well, we are raising quality beef here. Corn is the perfect building block for that. Someone always wants to take these things anthropomorphic – Given human values to animals and objects ala Disney. Equating kids and beef cattle. Really? We hope to send one to college. The other is steak. Scientific corn feeding produces muscle, trimmable fat and some marbeling that mostly melts away in grilling.

  10. Jay Johnson says:

    Cattle are going to eat whatever feedstuff is placed in front of them, as long as it is palatable. You cannot force feed cattle. They might not eat moldy hay but they will eat a high quality hay until their gastric system tells them they are full. Corn is no different. As far as cattle are concerned it is just another feedstuff. What is interesting about the ruminant animal is the ability of the rumen bacteria to change type based upon the type of feedstuffs it is eating (simple explanation).
    As far as nutritional status, the diet does not matter as long as the animal will eat it and it meets the animal’s dietary needs. For cattle, that is protein and energy (maintenance then growth), vitamins and minerals. The important thing is to make sure the animal’s dietary needs are met regardless of the type of feedstuffs being used. It can be done with corn (energy), soybean meal (protein), growing wheat (protein), rice bran, alfalfa pellets, whey and/or added minerals or with whatever is available. The ability for cattle to eat varied feedstuffs is what makes them unique.

  11. Sorry, ghall, 85 per cent of corn now is genetically modified, so you have to scientifically study the result of natural corn, hybrid corn, and genetically modified corn. So if you are not a scientist you have no credibility with me. GM products are developed not for health of animals or people, but to make a profit for corporate bullies who (proven fact – check out the documents that rule these corporations) care only about money.

  12. Whatever Suze, I suspect you are really not interested in the science, only that minority of it that agrees with you. One persons proven fact is another’s liberal interpretation.

  13. my issue isn’t so much the fact that we are raising these cows on corn, but the angus breeders and other breeders have manipulated people into thinking their beef is better. Why would you want to have almost all dairy herds in the US be holsteins which are genetically related to 4 bulls. Just 4. So the genetic variety is junk. If we were to have an outbreak, the genetic variety would not be there to hinder the spread. Also, there is a huge issue with parasites becoming resistant to dewormers, but we continue to try and make new dewormers rather than manage the ones we have or, better yet, try to encourage breeding of cattle that have natural resistance to parasites. Case in point: pineywood cattle. They have been managed to not need a lot of human intervention. They are naturally resistant to parasites and can be finished to market weight on scrub growth so they don’t require highly managed grass pastures. They also are very heat and humidity tolerant and ideal for southern cattle farmers, but the majority of southern cattle are angus and charolais. There are plenty of breeds that are well adapted to the different areas of the country, but people don’t raise them because the auction houses are looking for "white" cattle or for your black angus because the marketing done by the breeders has made people think angus is a superior meat.

  14. I don’t know whether corn makes cows sick or not. I watched the documentaries, “King Corn” and “Food Inc.” and they both claim that corn causes an overabundance of e-coli in the cows’ guts. Is this a lie? I don’t know.

    The whole issue of cows being force-fed corn, in my opinion, is a straw-man argument. In all of these documentaries and websites, I have never seen a claim that cows are force-fed corn. Yes, they love it. But like another said, kids like junk food; that doesn’t make it good for them.

    You admit that confining cows in feed lots can make them sick. They also spend a lot of time walking around in their own(and other cows’) feces. There must be a better way!

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