A statewide project equipping K-12 educators to teach Iowa history using primary sources

Teaching Iowa History Logo

Home » Articles » Cow War

The Cow War

Author: 

Iowans suffered terribly during the Great Depression. Tough economic circumstances, from unemployment to the collapse of agricultural prices, led to a series of protests in Iowa.  The first of these has become known as the Cow War.  In 1929 the state of Iowa mandated that farmers test cattle for bovine tuberculosis, resulting in a violent farm protest known as the Cow War.  It was centered in eastern Iowa around the towns of Muscatine and Tipton.  While Iowa farmers had usually supported high standards for the testing and grading of livestock and grain, this new requirement was badly timed and implemented.  The state recruited a force of veterinarians that visited counties, searching for and eradicating tubercular livestock.  Then they moved on to another county.  Such a group of outsiders, who arrived when farmers were economically vulnerable and confiscated diseased cattle, proved highly unpopular.  Compensation for cows that had been killed was often delayed.  Farmers also argued that the payments that they received were below the value of their livestock.  Families lost an average of $130 for each animal killed, a huge blow to family finances in the midst of the depression.  Furthermore, farmers did not believe that the TB test was fully reliable.  

By 1931 resistance to the program was widespread, especially after some lost entire herds to the disease.  Farmers armed themselves and barred state veterinarians from visiting their farms to test their animals.  In March, mobs of hundreds of farmers blocked veterinarians from giving tests.  Farmers flooded into Des Moines to protest the law later that month, but legislation supporting voluntary testing failed.  The conflict flared up again when the state veterinarian was stopped from giving tests in August by another armed mob.  In September, 450 farmers with clubs battled deputies in a fog of tear gas.  Several people were injured and law enforcement was forced to retreat.  In response, Governor Dan Turner sent 2,000 men from the Iowa National Guard into five counties to enforce the tests.  Troops stayed for two months.  Several years later the program was modified to use local vets to carry out the tests.  There were no further incidents of resistance to the program and bovine tuberculosis, which could spread to children, was eliminated in Iowa.

“Excerpt from a book in progress, published with permission of the author, 27 January 2020.”