The Courts of Bovine Justice

In my opinion, the strangest trials to take place in the U.S. were conducted under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. These were the scrub-sire trials held in the Courts of Bovine Justice beginning in the 1920’s.

This was a time when the science of genetics was becoming better understood and the concept of eugenics gained great popularity in the U.S. and Europe. Eugenics is the idea that the human race can be improved by selective breeding and repression of undesirable traits.


The idea fell out of favor after the Nazis carried the philosophy to it’s logical end with horrible results. Before that, from the late 1800’s, when the idea was first proposed by Francis Galton (cousin of Charles Darwin) through the beginning of WWII, eugenics could boast such proponents as Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and (of course) Adolf Hitler. The term encompassed everything from prenatal care to forced sterilizations and euthanasia.

America at the time was still primarily an agricultural society and the Department of Agriculture embraced the idea of selective breeding to improve the quality of farm animals. In particular, they were interested in improving the quality of production in the dairy industry. In 1924, the Department of Agriculture produced a pamphlet titled Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial. Scrub-sire was a term coined to indicate a “runty” bull with inferior qualities that should not be allowed to breed, like the “runty bull” below.


The pamphlet outlined the procedure for setting up a court of bovine justice to conduct a scrub-sire trial, including instructions for appointing a judge, lawyers, a jury, and a sheriff who would carry out the sentence.


The trial proceeded with witnesses giving testimony, the prosecution and defense lawyers presenting arguments, and the accused was even allowed to take the witness stand to speak in his own defense. Of course, the verdict was always the same….. guilty!


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With the rendering of the guilty verdict, the sheriff was to immediately shoot the offender and detailed instructions were included for conducting the ensuing barbecue or turning the offender into bologna, sausages, and hot dogs. In a variation in a 1928 scrub-sire trial in Weimar, Texas, the accused was sentenced to be fed for 30 days and then used to supply the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Apparently, these trials were widespread and common across the country. The Department of Agriculture received 500 requests for the pamphlet in the first month after printing, and it was reprinted in 1934. An Owenton, Kentucky newspaper article boasts of 12 scrub-sire trials conducted in a single day. These trials also could bring the participation of real judges and lawyers, as indicated in this excerpt from an article in the July 1928 Meat and Livestock Digest:

“Before a live audience of 400 stock owners, three purebred bulls from                                      register of merit dams, together with a good cow and her heifer, led a parade                          followed by a scrub bull, a scrub cow, and a scrub heifer. The culmination of the                      event was the execution of the bull found guilty at the public trial after the court                    had reviewed the evidence.

This means of directing public attention to the value of good breeding stock has                       been surprisingly successful in attracting the talents and support of local judges,                     county attorneys, other public officials, and business men.”

Over 30 years of numerous scrub-sire trials, The Department of Agriculture achieved their goal of boosting dairy production and provided a lot of questionable entertainment along the way.


an accredited dairy herd


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