The Evolution of Livestock and Poultry Farming

US-11 and Cows

The Great Road, or US 11, was originally used as a travel hub for livestock before the rise of the Cumberland Valley Railroad. Courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society.

The growth and decline of the livestock and poultry industry has been intertwined with the fate of the railroads.  The improvements in transportation provided by the CVRR allowed farmers to expand their operations through specialization.  However, as automoblies and tractor trailers became dominant, land use shifted, prices decreased, and local operations could no longer compete. 

Early Husbandry

Before the advent of the railroad, both livestock and poultry in the Cumberland Valley were kept in small numbers.  A typical farm had only four milk cows, three or four steer, a dozen hogs, and around a dozen chickens.  They generally fended for themselves in the fields, yards, and forests without structures to protect or feed them.  These animals and birds were used to provide necessary products at home such as meat, milk, butter, cheese, eggs, fiber, and feathers.  Any production in excess of the farmers’ needs would be taken to local markets; however, they were transported by horse-drawn wagons along the Great Road (today's Route 11) and at risk of spoilage.  

Drawing of Cows

Image taken from James Harvey Sanders, The Breeds of Livestock, and the Principles of Hereditary.

By the mid-1840s, the CVRR ran through the center of the county and by the late 1850s, rail lines had been extended, linking the entire valley to markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Animals and birds were loaded live into specialized stock cars and transported “on-the-hoof” to regional processing centers. In the 1880s, the introduction of refrigerated rail cars allowed for perishable items to be sent as well.

Accordingly, farmers began to keep more livestock and poultry and to care for them differently. They housed them in specially designed barns, sheds, and pens and began to grow special feed.

Poultry Annual Exhibition advertisement

Advertisement for an annual exhibition hosted by the Poultry Department within the Cumberland County Agricultural Society. Courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA. 

The period from 1900-1940 saw many changes as dairying became increasingly important to the local economy.  Herds became larger and milk was no longer processed on the farm. Instead, it was sold in fluid form for direct consumption or for centralized processing into products like butter, cheese, evaporated milk, ice cream, or candy.  The Hershey Company, located only fifty-five miles away from Shippensburg, required millions of pounds of milk each year to create its chocolate products.

This era also saw a tremendous rise in the poultry industry.  Farms in the Cumberland Valley outstripped state averages for poultry meat and eggs.

Silos, milk sheds, and poultry houses became common.

From 1940 to the present, urban and suburban development has caused the number of farms in Cumberland County to decrease significantly.  A sharp decline in U.S. dairy prices which began at the end of 2014 also resulted in the closure of many operations.  The remaining farms must now decide whether to increase their size to become more competitive or stay small and try to create a niche market.