At first I thought the Facebook headline was a joke. Thousands of red Skittles spilled on a highway were intended for cattle feed. But the Fox 61 story led to the Facebook page of the Dodge County Sherrif's Office in Wisconsin where the story was confirmed.

"Hundreds of thousands of Skittles were spilled on County Highway S near Blackbird Road," according to the Facebook page. Originally the candy's origin was unknown. The sheriff's office updated the post later and said, "the Skittles were intended to be feed for cattle as they did not make the cut for packaging at the company."

Candy as cattle feed

Bowl of sprinkles Does this look like a meal fit for a cow? Hardly. But a ton of sprinkles costs half as much as a ton of corn. (Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

As I dug a little deeper, I found the practice of feeding candy to cows is not unusual. It's a common practice for many cattle farmers and became even more common after corn prices rose in 2009, according to CNN. Farmers tapped "into the obscure market for cast-off food ingredients" to feed their cows less expensively.

In 2012, when CNN reported on candy as cow food, the price for a ton of corn was about $315. The price for a ton of sprinkles was as low as $160 a ton. The sugar in the candy is what the farmers want for the cows. It puts weight on them and even increases milk production. It's mixed with other forms of cattle feed, and one farmer interviewed for the CNN piece said he worked with an animal nutritionist to determine it should not be more than 3 percent of the feed.

In all my reporting about food waste, I've never thought about what happens to food waste from candy factories. This practice of feeding candy that doesn't make the quality control cut to animals as feed is certainly a way of making sure it doesn't go to waste. While it may be a solution for the candy manufacturer and the cattle farmer, I wonder how it affects cows or the those who consume products made from the cows.

Candy isn't the only addition

Orange peels Orange peels are one type of food production scrap that may be added to cattle feed. (Photo: Charikova/Shutterstock)

It's not just sugar-laden candy that's added to cattle feed to keep the cost down. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has a list of scraps from food production that can go into cattle feed including cookies, breakfast cereal, orange peels, dried fruit, taco shells, refried beans, cottonseed hulls, rice products, potato products, peanut pellets, and the byproducts of milling wheat into flour.

Not all of those additions seem as odd as candy, but none of them are what a cow would normally eat if it was grazing as it was mean to do.

A complicated food system

dairy cow Candy is made from corn syrup, but farmers are buying candy as cattle feed because corn is too expensive. How does that make any sense? (Photo: David Molina G/Shutterstock)

I get a bit dizzy trying to connect the dots, but this is the complicated thought going through my mind: Candy is cheaper than corn to feed to cattle. However, a main ingredient in a lot of sugary candy is corn syrup (or high fructose corn syrup), which is made from corn — the ingredient that's too expensive to feed to cattle. Corn is the one of government's most subsidized crops — farmers are paid to grow it — yet for a cattle farmer, the price is so high they forgo corn for candy, made from corn.

It's a big dizzying circle, isn't it? It's just an example of our complicated food system that makes my mind reel. Today it's reeling because a truck accidentally lost a shipment of Skittles on its way to becoming cattle feed. And it's not a joke.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.