(September 15, 1915–November 4, 1967)
Agricultural scientist and animal nutritionist who changed hog farming policies on feed and housing to increase production.
Damon Von Catron was born on a farm near Kokomo, Indiana; graduated from high school in Russiaville, Indiana; and completed a BS in agriculture at Purdue University in 1938. His early career included posts as a vocational agriculture instructor at New Castle High School, a junior livestock extension specialist for Purdue University, a poultry specialist for the Ralston-Purina Company, and an animal nutritionist for Honneger's, an Illinois livestock feed company. He later called his one-year experience at Ralston-Purina, which came at a time when the company was pushing for confinement and integration in the poultry industry, more valuable than any of his academic degrees. After completing an MS in animal husbandry at the University of Illinois in 1945, Catron came to Iowa State College, which granted him a post as assistant professor while he completed his doctorate, which he earned from Iowa State in 1948. Forty-six students completed graduate degrees under Catron's direction, and he was the author or co-author of more than 250 academic papers.
During his 15-year career at Iowa State, Catron was near the center of every significant development in American hog production. Through several steps, Catron researched, developed, or perfected the redesign of the American hog enterprise along industrial lines. First, he believed that hog farmer needed to buy "a system of feeding" rather than just a bag of feed. Thus he studied relationships among protein, fats, vitamins, and trace nutrients in feed mixtures, and his research confirmed the breakthrough discovery that antibiotics added to feeds can increase the rate of weight gain. Catron next pursued the goal of year-round farrowing in order to create a steadier supply of market hogs. The discovery that baby pigs could be weaned from the sow within just a few days of birth if given feeds fortified with antibiotics and vitamins to replace their mother's milk meant that the sow could be bred again within just nine weeks of giving birth. Next, Catron developed "life cycle feeding," the notion that pregnant sows, lactating sows, piglets, growing pigs, and fattening hogs each required different and sophisticated feed formulas. Catron also called for greater manipulation of the hogs' environment. Through "life cycle housing," farmer were expected to invest in indoor farrowing pens, regulated water temperatures, germicidal lamps, sloped concrete flooring, and other strategies designed for greater confinement and adjusted for the different stages in the animal's life. Eventually, confined housing systems like these eliminated the need for pasture altogether. Looking to the future, Catron predicted that computers and genetic engineering would be at the center of the next steps in the industrialization of American hog production. As a whole, Catron was at the forefront of a revolution that increasingly connected hog producers to an agribusiness complex of commercial feed manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, housing and equipment manufacturers, and government policymakers.
For excellence in this field, he received the American Feed Manufacturers Association Award (1953) and the Distillers Research Council Distinguished Nutritionist Award (1964). Dr. Catron's reputation also allowed him to become an advisor and consultant to international universities, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and feed manufacturers to improve feed nutrition and growth results.
Catron left Iowa State in 1960 to become vice president of research and development at Walnut Grove Products Co., Inc., a feed company based in Atlantic, Iowa. When W.R. Grace & Co. acquired that company in 1964, Catron moved on to a similar post for Grace in Maryland. There Catron led a wide range of nutrition research projects, helped the company evaluate potential acquisition targets, and sustained the firm's contacts with feed and food technology experts from around the world. He returned to academia in 1966, first to develop and then to become chairman of the new Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Missouri. Catron died in an automobile accident, caused by a heart attack, in Columbia, Missouri.
Very few published works focus on Catron's biography. Obituaries, vitae, and a strong collection of professional papers from his Iowa State career are available in RS 9/11/55, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.
An essay that places Catron's work into a broader context is Mark R. Finlay, "Hogs, Antibiotics and the Industrial Environments of Postwar Agriculture," in Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History, ed. Susan R. Schrepfer and Philip Scranton (2004).