Cow War

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Newspaper clippings (Box 4, folder E). George J. Ormsby Papers, MS 109, Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives.

The "Cow War" of Iowa took place over just a few months in the fall of 1931, largely in Cedar County. The heart of the conflict was a law passed by the State Legislature in 1929 that made testing of all dairy and meat cows for bovine tuberculosis mandatory.  The Legislature had passed the law in the interest of public health since consuming products from infected cows could make humans sick.  Farmers, however, doubted the validity of the tests, even to the point of thinking the test could give the animal tuberculosis or cause spontaneous abortion if the tested cows were pregnant. They also argued that the test was unconstitutional, a notion tested and rejected by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Veterinarians performed the test by injecting a spot near the cow's tail with tuberculin, then returning in 72 hours to see if the test reacted, in which case the cow was declared to have the disease and was condemned.  Compensation was provided to the farmerfor the loss of an animal, but it was not equal to the full market value.  First, the value was assessed at a lower rate.  Then, of that already lowered rate, the Federal government paid a third, the State government paid a third, and the farmer was simply out the last third.

At a time when farmers were already struggling to make a living, the loss of income could be devastating. Farmers used collective action to demonstrate their unhappiness with the law both with protests in Des Moines and by physical resistance at the farms of those who were having their cattle tested. The farmers devised a communication system so that a maximum number of people could gather at a farm once it was determined that is where testing was taking place.

Finally in September of 1931, the violence and intimidation against the veterinarians who were trying to perform the tests grew to dangerous levels, and Governor Dan Turner ordered Iowa National Guard troops to Cedar County to keep the peace. At that point, the farmers knew they were no match for machine gun armed troops, and testing was continued largely without incident.


George J. Ormsby Papers, MS 109, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Mills, George. One-armed Bandits: And Other Stories of Iowa's past and Present. by George Mills. Ames, Iowa: Focus Books, in Cooperation with Mid-Prairie Books, 1997.