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.

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