Too Much Milk

From the Department of Unintended Consequences From Messing With Nature, today’s NY Times reports on a new development in the dairy industry: sexed semen, resulting in…

Three years ago, a technological breakthrough gave dairy farmers the chance to bend a basic rule of nature: no longer would their cows have to give birth to equal numbers of female and male offspring. Instead, using a high-technology method to sort the sperm of dairy bulls, they could produce mostly female calves to be raised into profitable milk producers.

Now the first cows bred with that technology, tens of thousands of them, are entering milking herds across the country — and the timing could hardly be worse.

The dairy industry is in crisis, with prices so low that farmers are selling their milk below production cost. The industry is struggling to cut output. And yet the wave of excess cows is about to start dumping milk into a market that does not need it.

“It’s real simple,” said Tony De Groot, an early adopter of the new breeding technology, who milks 4,200 cows on a farm here in the heart of this state’s struggling dairy region. “We’ve just got too many cattle on hand and too many heifers on hand, and the supply just keeps on coming and coming.”

I personally don’t have a problem with artificial insemination; it can be an excellent tool for improving a herd’s genetics, by bringing in genes that would otherwise be unavailable on a given farm. We know many small breeders who use it for sheep and dairy herds. But I do find it remarkable that no one seemed to see the consequences of widespread adoption of “sexed semen” coming.

Driving around the country here, there are several smallish dairy operations with herds of Holstein cows. And, if you look closely at the other small farms, you’ll often see individual Holstein steer calves being raised for meat. Holsteins are not the most efficient breed for meat, but provide a nice 4-H project for a farm kid and a good amount of beef for the typical rural family. In other words: even though male Holstein calves don’t fetch a lot of money, they do have some value.

If the agricultural sex-selectors really want to make a difference, by eliminating males which have no value at all (and are otherwise immediately exterminated), they ought to focus their energies on the chicken industry. Help the egg producers hatch 90% females in their Leghorn flock, and you’ll have made an enormous contribution. Unlike the situation with cattle, which must be bred (and therefore must continue producing calves) to keep them in milk, if the egg producers managed to hatch 90% females they could simply scale back the total number of eggs incubated. We could get the right number of replacement pullets, without hatching enormous numbers of cockrels which would need to be immediately euthanized.

Or, we could just encourage more yeoman farmers to raise traditional dual-purpose breeds of chickens. But that would be too easy.

Organic Tuscan Kale

We have absolutely GOT to start growing certified organic Tuscan kale on our farm. I had no idea the lengths to which some people would go, and how much they would spend, to purchase it. And that purchasers (at least ones with their own bullet-proof limos) are also willing to fork over five bucks a dozen for eggs.

Seriously, I never thought I would see a story like this one in the Washington Post:

Let’s say you’re preparing dinner and you realize with dismay that you don’t have any certified organic Tuscan kale. What to do?

Here’s how Michelle Obama handled this very predicament Thursday afternoon:

The Secret Service and the D.C. police brought in three dozen vehicles and shut down H Street, Vermont Avenue, two lanes of I Street and an entrance to the McPherson Square Metro station. They swept the area, in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs, with bomb-sniffing dogs and installed magnetometers in the middle of the street, put up barricades to keep pedestrians out, and took positions with binoculars atop trucks. Though the produce stand was only a block or so from the White House, the first lady hopped into her armored limousine and pulled into the market amid the wail of sirens.

Then, and only then, could Obama purchase her leafy greens. “Now it’s time to buy some food,” she told several hundred people who came to watch. “Let’s shop!”

Go read the whole thing. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

Defusing the Population Bomb

At the risk of turning this into “Norman Borlaug Week,” I wanted to pass along an excellent piece from Gregg Easterbrook about the father of the green revolution.

He gives a nice review of Borlaug’s accomplishments, and the significance of his work. This datum in particular is startling:

Green Revolution techniques caused both reliable harvests, and spectacular output. From the Civil War through the Dust Bowl, the typical American farm produced about 24 bushels of corn per acre; by 2006, the figure was about 155 bushels per acre.

Making a similar point as my original post about Borlaug, Easterbrook observes:

Paul Ehrlich gained celebrity for his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” in which he claimed that global starvation was inevitable for the 1970s and it was “a fantasy” that India would “ever” feed itself. Instead, within three years of Borlaug’s arrival, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; within six years, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.

But Easterbrook’s most important — and insightful — observations might be these:

After his triumph in India and Pakistan and his Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug turned to raising crop yields in other poor nations especially in Africa, the one place in the world where population is rising faster than farm production and the last outpost of subsistence agriculture. At that point, Borlaug became the target of critics who denounced him because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was “inappropriate” for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists “have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.”

Environmentalist criticism of Borlaug and his work was puzzling on two fronts. First, absent high-yield agriculture, the world would by now be deforested. The 1950 global grain output of 692 million tons and the 2006 output of 2.3 billion tons came from about the same number of acres three times as much food using little additional land.

“Without high-yield agriculture,” Borlaug said, “increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion.” Environmentalist criticism was doubly puzzling because in almost every developing nation where high-yield agriculture has been introduced, population growth has slowed as education becomes more important to family success than muscle power.

Go read the whole thing.

Following Up on Dr. Borlaug

A quick follow-up: I cleaned up yesterday’s post on Dr. Norman Borlaug, trimmed it to under 1,000 words, and the good folks at MercatorNet published it today.

And if I could clarify one thing for all of you: I am not a “supporter” of the industrial agriculture model that developed as a result of Dr. Borlaug’s work. But neither am I so deluded as to believe that model can be overturned any time soon, or that — given how the agricultural industry has developed — it would be possible to replace that model overnight with anything that would be nearly as effective in meeting global nutritional needs. That was my point in citing the example of synthetic fertilizer; I’d prefer to see more grass-based livestock operations that are not as reliant on monocultures and row crops, and therefore not as much in need of fertilizer — but that’s not the reality of modern agriculture, and isn’t something that will change any time soon. I think it’s important to emphasize that even if we may not like some of the consequences the green revolution has spawned, and even if we think some of its farming practices should be changed, we need to be honest in admitting that hundreds of millions of people are alive today who likely would have starved to death without that revolution.

Is the nutritional content of those people’s food as good as it could be? Of course not. Can we do better? Absolutely. But we need to start somewhere, and I celebrate the “pro-life” achievements of Dr. Borlaug’s green revolution. And will continue to do everything I can to produce higher quality food for my family, and to encourage others to produce higher quality food for their own families, using more sustainable farming techniques.

The Puzzle of Dr. Norman Borlaug

Ever wondered why food today is so incredibly cheap and widely available? Why we no longer see so much footage of starvation and famine in third world countries? There are many reasons, of course, but much of it can be summed up in two words: Norman Borlaug. Dr. Borlaug passed away this weekend at the age of 95, and is generally recognized as the architect of the “Green Revolution,” the explosion of crop yields and farming productivity that occurred after World War II.

Dr. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary includes a fascinating description of just how profoundly his work transformed agricultural practices and the resulting outputs.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half. By luck, the strategy also produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and thus capable of growing in many locales, a trait that would later prove of vital significance.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.

This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

Particularly in sustainable agriculture circles, many point out that Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution, like every revolution, included its share of unintended consequences and created problems of its own. Chief among these: the industrialization and corporate domination of agriculture, the depopulation of the countryside, and squeezing out of small family farms. Modern farming is no longer conducted on a “human” scale, and the overwhelming majority of people in developed countries have lost all connection to where their food comes from.

I understand these sentiments well, and sympathize (at least in spirit) with much of the critique of modern industrial agriculture. However, I am under no illusions that it is possible — or even desirable — to put the genie of modern agriculture back into its bottle. Fertilizer is a prime example; the large confinement livestock operations have never been better at capturing animal waste, but even all that manure falls far short of what is needed to grow crops on the scale needed to feed the world’s population. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are a practical necessity. As Blake Hurst, himself a commercial farmer, points out in his excellent article, The Omnivore’s Delusion:

Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with “natural” fertilizer. … And cows do not produce nitrogen from the air, but only from the forages they eat, so to produce more manure we will have to plant more forages.

Hurst goes on to discuss the planting of cover crops (aka “green manure”) to supply nitrogen naturally, but demonstrates that this is both impractical and would remove a great deal of cropland from production. I love the Amish, and the way they farm, but we can’t pretend that Amish farming practices can feed the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I highly recommend the small-scale agriculture that our family is engaging in, and I hope that more families follow us in adopting this lifestyle. But it’s difficult to imagine “yeoman farmers” like ourselves ever being able to feed the world with what we’re doing. Heck, we can’t even (entirely) feed our own family this way…and we’ve met very few families who even come close.

We do produce all of our own eggs, and almost all of our meat, and what we can’t raise here (beef) we buy from a neighbor who does. But, even there, I need to be honest. Our egg layer and broiler chicks all come from a commercial hatchery. So do our ducklings, and our goslings, and our turkey poults. All the feed they consume was grown by “industrial” farmers and mixed up for us by the local grain elevator (with industrial-strength equipment). Our sheep are exclusively grass-fed, and our goats are largely grass-fed, but the does could not produce enough milk for us without supplemental grain from the elevator. Our egg chickens are free to forage, but their egg production would suffer badly without supplemental grain. In short, without the extraordinary crop yields and productivity of modern agriculture, we would not have the relatively inexpensive feed grains that ultimately make our family’s micro-farm possible.

Perhaps the most important by-product of Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution is the shattering of Malthusian theories. Thomas Malthus argued that because population increases geometrically, but agricultural production only increases arithmetically, human populations would eventually outstrip the ability of farmers to feed them. Malthus and his modern disciples (such as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich) therefore argued that stringent population-control measures were the only way to solve this dilemma.

But Malthus failed to anticipate the extraordinary manner in which technology and innovation could literally change the rules about agricultural output. As the late Dr. Julian Simon pointed out in numerous books and other research writings, human beings are not mere consumers of resources. Rather, we are truly “the ultimate resource.” Humans, because of our brains and intellectual ability, are equipped to solve problems and produce far more than we consume. Particularly when markets are allowed to function freely and offer incentives for meeting the needs of other people, and governments protect property rights, human beings have proven themselves capable of coming up with extraordinary breakthroughs to solve the problems of food production. As others have put it, every child is born with a mouth to feed — but two hands to help work. And, as Dr. Simon would add, a brain to help innovate.

And that leaves us with a puzzling final observation. Despite his personal experience in revolutionizing the way food is produced, and having witnessed first-hand the ability of human intellect to find new ways of feeding a growing world, Norman Borlaug was and remained an advocate for the population-control movement. His references to “the population monster,” and other similar formulations, even hint at an underlying misanthropy in his beliefs — as if the problem is too many people in the world, rather than not enough freedom and market incentives for innovators to find ways to supply the needs of those people. I greatly admire what Dr. Borlaug was able to achieve in his work, but am left wondering why he could not recognize the profoundly anti-Malthusian implications of his achievements.

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for the conversation that Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon might be having right now on the other side…

Hay Hay Hay!

One reason for the slow posting of late is the extraordinary amount of harvest activity that kicks in on the farm in late summer. Add to that an extraordinary amount of professional work that’s come in recently, and I’m going an embarrassing amount of time between blog posts. Hope to get caught up toward the end of next week, when everything should be slowing down a bit.

Last Thursday, the big harvest project was HAY. We brought in our third (and final) cutting of the year, and it was extremely rich in alfalfa. The way hay works, three cuttings is considered a good/standard year. The field is planted in a mix of grass and alfalfa; the latter is what provides most of the protein in hay. The first cutting of the spring is very heavy in grass, but has some alfalfa. This year, thanks to a good application of fertilizer last fall, we got 465 bales in our first cutting. We brought in the second cutting on July 14th, and got 240 bales; it was less bulky, due to the grass slowing down in the heat of summer, but richer in alfalfa.

This year’s third cutting was only 123 bales, but they were overwhelmingly alfalfa and will provide a wonderful, protein-rich supplement for the sheep this winter. And in case you’re keeping count, cutting #2 yielded 51% of the number of bales we got in cutting #1. And cutting #3 yielded 51% of the bales we got in cutting #2. That is par for the course. You get fewer bales as the year goes on, but they’re richer.

The farmer who helps us decided that he would make a single trip around the field making bales and stacking them on the hay rack; that was pushing the upper limit of what the rack could hold, but he didn’t want to waste time making two trips to the barn. Instead, he stacked the bales seven high. Our two youngest kids, who’d been riding around on the rack as the bales came it, had the absolute time of their lives: as the bales stacked higher, they got to climb higher. And higher. And higher. By the time the tractor and hay rack were coming in to the barn, they were literally almost as high up as the power lines running from the road to our house. They needed a ladder to come down.

It’s a wonderful sense of security to have many hundreds of bales of hay stacked to the rafters in the big red barn. We have much more than we’ll need for the next year, but our thinking is that we shouldn’t sell any. If drought conditions limit next year’s harvest, we’ll be very glad to have these extra bales in the winter of 2010-2011…especially because, in a drought year, hay purchased on the open market would be extremely expensive. And it’s not like this stuff goes bad, as long as you keep it dry in the barn. If next year’s harvest is another bumper one, we might sell some of that hay.

For now, I love looking at the beautifully-cut field and remember that all the haying work is now done for the year and the produce is safely gathered into the barn.