Associate Professor, Dairy Cattle Genetics
Department of Dairy and Animal Science
The Pennsylvania State University
First published on the Blog American Thinker on September 18,2010
Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET is the new world milk production record-holder. In the course of one year, she made 72,168 pounds of milk. That’s nearly 8,400 gallons in one year, or 23 gallons per day. The average cow produces 6.5 gallons per day. Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET is the culmination of intense genetic selection, terrific cow management, and the use of technologies like rBST. Genetically, she is a product of artificial insemination and embryo transfer. Her sire is Stouder Morty-ET, and he has over 67,000 daughters in more than 15,000 dairy herds around the globe. The “ET” designation indicates that she was transferred as an embryo from her genetically superior mother to an inferior surrogate cow.
Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET is the world’s greenest cow because one high-producing cow eliminates the need for a lot of lousy cows. The environmental benefits of improved cow productivity over the last half century have been documented by scientists from Cornell University. The U.S. had 25.6 million dairy cows in 1944, and those cows produced 13.6 billion gallons of milk. It took approximately one-third that many cows (9.1 million) to produce 21.5 billion gallons 2007. The amount of manure generated per gallon of milk today is only 25% of that produced in 1944. We’re better off on the greenhouse gas front as well, with a reduction in methane emissions of more than 50% per gallon of milk.
For those concerned that such high milk yield might impair her well-being, she certainly did not show any physical signs of wearing down. The Holstein Association employs classifiers to score cows based on their physical conformation for traits such as udder, rump, and feet and legs. Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET was classified “Excellent” during her record-setting lactation, an honor bestowed on less than 1% of the nation’s dairy cows. The ability to yield extreme volumes of milk without compromising the cow’s welfare results from responsible genetic selection by our nation’s dairy cattle breeders. They put a lot of emphasis on maintaining proper conformation in order to withstand high milk yield.
Consumers have been told that to be environmentally friendly, milk must be organic. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting the opposite to be true. Leading scientists have documented that organic dairy production increases greenhouse gas emissions substantially because it takes more cows to make the same amount of milk. Moreover, they report that organic milk has the same nutrient content as conventional milk and the same level of hormones as milk from cows treated with rBST. Organic production does have some benefits to the cows because they are allowed to graze, but even that is partly offset by the fact that a sick organic cow is out of luck because she can’t be treated with antibiotics if you ever want to sell organic milk from her again.
While the organic movement has oversold its environmental track record, a more dangerous claim is made to intentionally obscure facts about our food production system. Only this time, the excessive load of manure comes from those who want no questions asked about a single modern agricultural practice. The claim is that in order to produce enough food for the world to eat without over-stressing our environment, we must embrace consolidated animal agriculture. For example, the Dairy Network sent out a press release regarding a Stanford University study headlined “Stanford Finds Big Benefits From Big Ag.” Only the study found no such thing. That study defined agricultural intensification as “improving crop yield from the land already under cultivation.” Every one of the improvements mentioned in the study is available to farms of all sizes, not just Big Ag. Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET is a terrific example. She is from a 120-cow family dairy farm in Wisconsin and lives in a good old-fashioned tie-stall barn, not a California happy cow dry lot or an Upper Midwest cross-ventilated cow warehouse. The country’s highest-producing “Herd of Excellence” even let their cows outside to graze, a practice that is always high on the target list of those trying to make us feel better about Big Ag.
We have been misled on two fronts when it comes to the dairy products we consume. One side says that to be “sustainable,” we should be eating organic. The other side says that in order to feed the world in a sustainable manner, we must embrace large-scale confinement agriculture. Neither is true, but perhaps not for long. The family dairy farm is on the verge of going the way of family hog farms. Once that moment arrives, I’ll be in a real bind. Spend extra to buy environmentally dubious organic milk, or spend less but support a cold agricultural business machine with no character. The only given is that I won’t buy soy “milk” — I’ll at least avoid the prospect of phytoestrogen induced man-breasts.