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Why Cows?

If you’ve been following the Institute for long, then you’ve probably heard plenty of cow references. You may also have asked yourself at some point why a social science institute would be so bovine-obsessed.

Howard Odum with one of his bulls.
Image of Howard W. Odum with one of his bulls © UNC University Archives

The answer actually goes all the way back to our first director & namesake, Howard Washington Odum, who founded the Institute in 1924 after arriving at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1920 to head the sociology department.

Odum grew up in Bethlehem, Georgia, on a small family farm. His father, William P. Odum, maintained a herd of pure bred Jersey dairy cows. William passed his passion for breeding cattle on to his sons Howard and Henry, who continued the tradition and eventually passed it on to their children as well.

Howard W. Odum operated a Georgia farm with his brother Henry remotely for approximately twenty years before establishing his own in 1933 on University Lake Road in Chapel Hill. Though the herd he maintained was fairly small – never numbering more than 30 or 40 milking animals at a time – its impact on the region was huge.

For Odum, cattle breeding was not just a hobby. He saw it as a way to diversify the South’s agriculture and boost its economy in a significant way, while also providing a nutritious product and “a better way of life,” as he put it. In his eyes, dairy farming was a largely untapped industry that had huge potential as not only a robust revenue source for the region but also as a resource that would be vastly more sustainable in the long run. Odum’s rationale regarding this was touched on in a Greensboro Daily News article on his prize bulls published in 1942, about a decade after he began his advocacy for Jersey cows in the Carolinas:

“Due in no small part to the fine work of Dr. Odum…the south is realizing that by turning to cattle production it can more quickly improve its wealth and relative standing among the regions of the country than perhaps in any other way. Its land is admirably suited to grazing, and the grass pastures will rebuild the soil that has been worn down by the single crops, tobacco and cotton. These have robbed it of much of its mineral wealth over the years, and actually ruined many thousands of acres.”

Odum’s line breeding program was meticulously planned to combine the best genes from the bulls and dams with the best pedigrees, in order to essentially create a line of super-cows. These super-cows would not be “super” purely based on their production yields, but also on overall health, heartiness, and resistance to disease.

The heartiness factor was something that was hindering the South’s dairy industry at that time. Though most cattle could deal with the heat, the humidity on top of it was seriously affecting production levels in the region. The cross-breeding championed by Odum helped create cows that could stand the climate by pairing those that had already managed to flourish in it. Disease resistance both due to breeding and improved medicinal options also increased, and as a result the Jersey cows that Odum so carefully manufactured produced better quality milk at two to three times the rate of other cows in the Carolinas.

Odum became very well-known in the Jersey cattle community. He won the prestigious title of Master Breeder from the American Jersey Cattle Association, was the first to be named to the American Jersey Cattle Club’s “Constructive Breeders Registry” for three consecutive years, and was elected president of the North Carolina Jersey Cattlemen’s Association during World War II. Beyond that his herd and individual bulls and dams won countless other awards.

He was widely quoted for saying during an interview with a New York Times reporter, “So far my bulls have been worth more than my books.” However, despite having propagated an award-winning herd of cattle that could all have been sold for huge sums, he practically gave them away. In November 1955, one of many articles about his cattle breeding endeavors appeared in the Chapel Hill Weekly, stating:

An ad placed by Howard W. Odum urging others to take up dairy cow breeding.
An ad placed by Howard W. Odum urging others to take up dairy cow breeding © UNC University Archives

“Mr. Odum’s chief aim as a cattle breeder was to establish fine Jersey herds throughout the Carolinas. This he did by giving away or selling first-class animals at ridiculously low prices. As a result, most of the best Jersey herds in North and South Carolina had their origin here on the University Lake Road. Mr. Odum was thus the pioneer and founder of the purebred Jersey industry in these two states.”

It may seem odd that a sociologist would breed cattle on the side – and not just a sociologist, but one at the top of his field. Odum was president of the American Sociological Association; in 1953 received the O. Max Gardner Award for the faculty member “who in the current year has made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race,”; when he passed away the Washington Post said he “inspired a revolution.”

But if you look at the roots of his motivation, it makes sense. On March 23, 1949, the Jersey Bulletin printed an article about him in honor of him being named a Master Breeder, and recognized why his dedication to cattle breeding was not so very far off from his academic theses:

“In his Southern Regions and his American Regionalism, he has tried to work out what he calls the Regional Balance of American, balance between not only all the regions in a greater American unity, but balance between men and resources and between technology and human welfare. It is in line with this emphasis upon conserving and developing and using wisely our resources, in addition to the inherent values of the Jerseys, that he classifies his prime interest in the breeding of superlative Jerseys.”

For more information on Odum and the history of the Institute, please click here.

J., J. “Chapel Hill Chaff.” Chapel Hill Weekly [Chapel Hill] 15 Nov. 1955: n. pag. Print.
“Odum’s Prize Bulls.” Greensboro Daily News 6 July 1942: n. pag. Print.
“Dr. Odum – Master Breeder.” Jersey Bulletin 25 Mar. 1949: n. pag. Print.
“Jersey Cattle Club Honors Dr. Howard Odum.” Daily Tar Heel [Chapel Hill] 18 Feb. 1939: n. pag. Print.
Vance, Rupert B. “Odum, Howard Washington.” NCPedia. State Library of North Carolina; NC Natural and Cultural Resources; NC LIVE; Institute of Museum and Library Services, 1 Jan. 1991. Web. 12 July 2017.