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What Happens to All the Cowhides?

From Farm to Fun- Baseball and Dairy Cows

Finding homes for cowhides is an obstacle for many processing plants. Hide markets have declined in recent years and consumers have developed a growing interest in synthetic versions of footwear, handbags, and couches. The result is an excess of cowhides, a natural resource that could be repurposed, but often only has one useful option; to be composted. While hide composting, if done effectively,  is a worthy destination for a hide and has proven to aid in the growth of all kinds of crops from tomatoes, to beans, there might be another market we haven’t fully tapped yet!

Major league baseball teams use anywhere from 144 to 180 baseballs in a single game, and upwards of 54,000 balls throughout a season between practices and games. Every ball made begins with a cowhide and many of those hides come right from the U.S.A. In fact, you won't find a synthetic baseball used by the pros. Only the best cowhides will do, they come from dairy cows raised in the Northeast.

Hides are a byproduct of the beef and dairy industries.  Cows aren’t raised for their hides specifically, yet hides are a result of the butchering process. While not every hide could end up as part of America’s favorite pastime, there is certainly room for more high quality cowhides in the sports industry, specifically from dairy cows.

What Makes Dairy Cows Special

Tennessee Tanning Co.’s plant manager, Mike York says, “The more time a cow spends in the cooler weather, the better it is for us.” Dairy cows have tough but thin hides, and living in colder temperatures means a shorter bug season. Every hide is scrutinized at the processing plant for imperfections before it is shipped to a tanning facility. Bug bites are responsible for most of the imperfections.

In Tennessee, if the local Cargill processing plant stops processing cows or a truckload of hides is missed, then Tennessee Tanning Company’s production stops too. They are not getting hides from other sources.  One hide will make eighteen dozen baseballs and the Cargill- Tennessee Tanning partnership yields the best hides; pliable and even.

Once the hides have been tanned they make their way to Costa Rica where, at the Rawlings factory, they are wrapped around rubber and wool cores, stitched, and shipped back to the States. About 2.8 million baseballs are made every year, which accounts for a significant amount of leather.

Every ball is used an average of 7 times during a major league game. But don’t worry, the balls are not trashed after their short life on the field. Game balls are authenticated and end up in the homes of fans all over the country as pieces of memorabilia. And if they aren’t purchased from a gift shop they end up back on the field being used for practice.

A Future For Cowhides

While you might find baseballs at the local school gym made from alternative leather sources, the top tier teams only use real leather because it is durable and predictable. The same is true for other sporting equipment, from baseball gloves, to volleyballs, to cleats; the sports industry relies on high quality hides for their teams. 

According to recent research there could be an uptick in the demand for cowhides. Once believed to cause a lot of greenhouse gasses when they reach landfills, data collected in the past year shows that cowhides have a lower carbon footprint than oil- derived synthetics. Cowhides could be the most sustainable option for sports equipment whether used by a major league baseball team or the local t-ball team, and become a realistic solution to the obstacle of excess hides at processing plants.

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