Skittles Make Up Part of a Cow's Diet in Some States, What About in Idaho? 

click to enlarge Get rid of the "S" on these Skittles and you've got yourself the makings of some sweet cattle feed. - DAVID ADAM KESS, CC BY 4.0
  • David Adam Kess, CC by 4.0
  • Get rid of the "S" on these Skittles and you've got yourself the makings of some sweet cattle feed.
A few weeks back, a semi-truck carrying red Skittles spilled its load across a Wisconsin highway, causing an amusing scene and spurring a conversation about animal nutrition.

It was initially reported the Skittles—which were missing the telltale “S,” according to the Mars candy company—were headed to feed cows. In recent days, however, a Mars spokesman said that particular shipment of defective Skittles was on its way to being destroyed before its contents ended up scattered across the road in Wisconsin. That said, another Mars representative confirmed a plant that makes Skittles in Waco, Texas, does sell ingredients and other products to processors who then supply feedlots.

So, yes and no: Those Skittles in Wisconsin weren't going to feed cows, but some Skittles do.

Aside from amused headlines, the Wisconsin Skittles incident has resulted in lifting the lid on a longtime agricultural practice. In 2012, CNN Money reported farmers had been adding candy to cow feed for “decades,” but candy and other food byproducts had become increasingly popular as corn prices surged. At the time, CNN reported, corn cost about $315 a ton, whereas ice-cream sprinkles went for only $160 a ton. Hence, the cows got jimmies.

Sprinkles and Skittles aren't the only sweet treats cows splurge on, either. Mother Jones reported cows eat nearly everything in the Halloween stash—gummy worms, marshmallows, candy corn, hot chocolate mix, you name it.

Candy isn't that popular as cow feed in Idaho. Anne Laarman, assistant professor of animal nutrition at the University of Idaho, said apple, potato and brewers grain byproducts are common food supplements in the Gem State because they're easy to get locally. Laarman had never heard of cows being fed candy before, but said he was “not surprised.”

Sugar is an important energy resource for cows, which need an enormous amount of it to gain muscle or produce milk, Laarman said. As long as the candy is coming from a reputable source and the rancher or facility manager is working with a nutritionist to make sure the candy fits into the cow’s diet, the sugars could be “very beneficial,” he said.

“The big thing is to work with an industry nutritionist, someone trained to do animal nutrition, and make sure whatever byproduct this is, it is part of a healthy diet for cows,” Laarman said. “Skittles might be a good example of that. It’s a quirkier one, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.”
click to enlarge Sugars are found naturally in grasses but, as long as they fit into a cow's diet, some animal nutritionists say candy can be "very beneficial." - ANTRANIAS, PIXABAY, PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Antranias, Pixabay, Public Domain
  • Sugars are found naturally in grasses but, as long as they fit into a cow's diet, some animal nutritionists say candy can be "very beneficial."

Wisconsin animal nutritionist and dairy farmer Laura Daniels took to Facebook to give a full biology lesson on the subject. Her video following “Skittlesgate,” as she called it, explained that cows need sugars to fuel the bacteria that help them digest fiber.

“Everyone is concerned that we’re giving our cows diabetes. I totally get it—if we feed people too much sugar, that’s what happens,” she said in the video. “It just doesn't work that way in cows … [sugar] is such healthy feed for them in moderation.”

Sugars can be found naturally in grass—and that's the kind of food they should be eating, said Janie Burns, who owns Meadowlark Farm in Nampa, where she raises grass-fed lamb.

“I don't think it's a good policy to feed highly processed foods to anybody—whether it's people or ruminants,” Burns said. “There are a ton of scientists who say, ‘As long as it's got these nutritional characteristics it's OK,’ but it's not what they were raised on or what they eat naturally. You don't find Skittles in nature.”

In terms of food quality, Ron Richard, who manages the UI Meat Laboratory in Moscow, wrote in an email that he has "seen nothing to indicate any adverse effects in the meat produced from animals that have been fed candy."

Rick Naerebout, director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, isn’t concerned either. He likens a dairy cow's diet to that of a professional athlete—both are strictly controlled to optimize performance. As long as a nutritionist signs off on the feed, he thinks feeding cows candy byproducts is a sweet deal for the cows; the cattle producers, who save money; and for the environment.

“[Ranchers] see a lot of things they’re able to incorporate into a cow’s diet that would otherwise go into a landfill,” Naerebout said. “But because cows have kind of amazing stomachs, they’re able to recycle that material into energy to create milk.”

At least candy is palatable. According to Mother Jones, other known food supplements include chicken poop, crab guts, ground limestone and sawdust.

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