We are what they eat: tasty trends in cattle ranching
GREAT FALLS, MT - A fourth-generation rancher in Highwood, Ty Malek thought he had heard it all. But when he heard some farmers feed cows discarded candy like Skittles - on purpose - he had to pause for a second.
"I think if you told the people of Montana you were feeding Skittles to cattle they'd laugh at ya," said Malek.
The trend made headlines in January when a truck set to deliver the discarded candy to a ranch spilled its load in Wisconsin.
"I'm astonished," said shopper Carol Bradley. "It does gross me out."
But just how common is feeding candy to cattle? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
"Skittles can be used for movie theaters, or they can also be used to feed your pigs, or your steers," said Montana State agricultural extension agent Rose Malisani.
She says animals across the country have been getting sweet treats for years. Over time, rising corn prices forced farmers to turn to other readily available nutrition sources. And it turns out, Skittles in Wisconsin are just the tip of the iceberg.
"It's actually an awesome way to utilize food that might be put in the trash," said Malisani.
It's called byproduct feeding, and local resources rule: citrus rinds in Florida; French fries in Idaho; and apple peelings in Washington. In Billings, some animals may get sugar beets.
"It's kind of cool because when you go to some of these feed-lots, you'll see things like potatoes and stuff in the feed bunk," said Malisani. And while this may appall some humans, she says animals are built differently.
"They're not thinking it's a Skittle," she said. "They're thinking it's energy, it's sugar, so actually the microbes in their stomach will take that sugar on and use it as part of their diet."
Cattle nutritionists are also there to mix the right balance together.
"So no, it doesn't affect their meat," said Malisani. "It's just part of what they eat."
And while local cows may get local snacks, most animals in our region won't be tasting the rainbow anytime soon.
As for Malek, he says he'll stick to hay.
USDA currently doesn't account for candy-fed animals, so if that isn't appealing you can choose grass-fed or grass-finished meat at the grocery store.