To a typical teenager with a little money, a pound or two of chocolate to nibble each week wouldn't be out of the question.
But that's nothing compared with the amount of chocolate the dairy cows in Ralph McGregor's herd eat each week on a farm in northwestern York County. His 240 milking cows take in between 3 and 4 tons of KitKats and Reese's Pieces a week, an average of more than 30 pounds per animal.McGregor has been feeding his herd salvage chocolate - candy "mistakes" that cannot be sold to the public - from Hershey Foods Corp. in Hershey for about eight years, and he's not the only farmer following the feeding regimen.
According to William Flickinger, a livestock nutritionist from East Berlin who operates the Cal-Pen Nutrition Service, at least 60 other dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey also are feeding chocolate to their milk cows.
Flickinger, who has 20 years' experience in livestock nutrition, said feeding candy to livestock started in California more than two decades ago.
"This is nothing new, except in these parts. I started to try it with the farmers I work with after I moved back to York County in 1978," he said.
"Tests have shown that cows that eat chocolate produce milk higher in butterfat," he said. "The higher the butterfat content, the more the farmer is paid for his milk. That's what this is all about: farmers making the highest margin of profit possible. We're not feeding cows chocolate just to be doing something different. It works."
The standard for whole milk is 3.5 percent butterfat. For every tenth of a percentage over that standard, a farmer is paid an additional $1.28 per 100 gallons of milk.
The sweet feed also has another advantage: It allows McGregor to feed his herd a higher quality diet at a greatly reduced cost.
"That reflects in the profit margin, too," he said.
McGregor talks in terms of total mixed ration, or TMR.
"A lot of dairy farmers are living in the past," he said. "They feed their herds grain one day, hay the next day, silage the next day and let them graze in the pasture the following day. That's fine, but it's not a modern feeding concept."
The TMR for the McGregor herd is available to the animals 24 hours a day and includes a mixture of hay silage, corn silage, soybean and cottonseed meal, grain (corn, oats and barley chop), vitamins, trace minerals and the chocolate. The chocolate makes up about 10 percent of the dry matter, McGregor said.
McGregor pays about $65 a ton for the chocolate, which "compares to about $105 per ton for corn, which is probably what I'd use in the feed mix if I didn't use chocolate," he said.
That's about $7,000 a year McGregor saves by using chocolate in his feed.
Flickinger describes chocolate as an "energy" product.
"It has good fat content, starches and sugars - about twice the amount of energy of one ear of corn.