Sunday, October 04, 2009

Counting cows

Accidentally in glut

People have been bringing a recent New York Times article to my attention: “From Science, Plenty of Cows but Little Profit.” (If the New York Times is behind a subscription wall for you, try the News & Observer's reprint here.) Just when milk prices crash and dairy farmers are taking it on the chin, science has foolishly tampered with nature and created more cows! As reporter William Neuman explains,
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.
There's less to this story than meets the eye.

It's true, of course, that any dairy farmer who invested in sex-selection technology wasted his money. Money he almost certainly cannot afford in these straitened times. The extra heifers are of no benefit, since he certainly does not need more milk cattle while the market for fluid milk is glutted. Dairy farmers are now receiving about $11 per hundred-weight, while a year ago it was over $19. The dairymen who went into debt to expand their herds at the price peak are now losing those herds at the low point. (My brother, who is a dairy farmer, knows of two men who got out of the business the hard way: one used a rope and the other used a gun.) It's a disaster out there, as depicted recently on ABC World News (“Dairy Farms Disappear”).

The problem, therefore, is real. The sex-selection technology, however, is the merest blip. It might be a significant boon in the future, supposing that there is a recovery in the dairy industry, but in the short run it has minimal impact. You see, each milk cow needs to give birth in order to start lactating. You may remember that fact from basic biology. Perhaps at some point we will overcome that limitation, but for now it still holds true.

This basic law of milk production means that each cow in a milking herd is a mother, implying the existence of a calf. The number of calves isn't going to change. In the past, you had a fifty-fifty split in the number of heifers (female calves) and bull calves (male calves). As reported in the New York Times,
The male calves are usually sold for little money to be raised as meat, and the females are raised as milk producers.
All too true. The occasionally bull calf may be raised to adulthood for stud services, but most of the boys go right to the auction block (along with an excess girl or two).

Such a waste of breeding time and effort, producing all those useless males!

It looked for a moment like the problem of excess males had been fixed. Unhappily, under current circumstances, the fix merely means that we have begun producing useless females—in a one-to-one substitution for the useless males. The excess heifers will be sold off instead of being bred and joining the milk herd. The unneeded heifers will command the same meagre meat-product prices as the unneeded bull calves. The girls will, unfortunately, have cost more than the boys used to because of the investment in sex-sorted semen for artificial breeding purposes, but they won't be adding a single drop to the milk glut.

They'll never be milked.


Karen said...

Do modern dairy farms in the U.S. sell off their bull calves when young, or raise them as steers for meat? As a youngster, I remember visiting my uncle's small farm, where excess heifer calves were sold off but bull calves were raised until they reached optimum butchering size. Would it be better for the modern farmer to use that fancy sex-selection technology to produce mostly bull calves, and get into the meat business as a sideline?

Zeno said...

Karen, my connection with dairy farming is entirely second hand these days. I can tell you, however, that my brother's farm does not raise beef cattle. For one thing, Holsteins are bred and selected for milk production, not quality of meat. I've had plenty of Holstein steaks and hamburgers and they're fine, but that's make-do farm life for you. Beef ranchers raise Angus and other specialty cattle, castrated into steers and plumped up on feedlots to maximize marketability.

I suspect that specialization will keep milk and beef production separate.

Karen said...

Zeno, all of your posts that I've read concerning farming suggest that it's one hell of a hard way to make a living. My own family, running small farms in Minnesota, certainly found it so; none of my generation were willing to take up farming. In your experience, how many farmers have children following in their footsteps?

Oh, and as to the point of your article: any farmer who can't do enough math to figure out that s/he's not going to be able to absorb the doubling of his/her dairy herd every year needs more help than "science" can provide. The same goes for any article author who can't figure out that excess heifers become sausage and cat food, not more milk producers.

Zeno said...

My grandparents had seven grandchildren who grew up on the family dairy farm. Today one of the grandchildren (my brother) is running the family establishment and a second (a cousin) has an independent dairy farm operation. A third (yet another cousin) tried and failed.

It's a crapshoot whether any farm kids will stay on the farm in any given farm family. If you don't have at least one in each generation, the farm goes away very quickly.

Sili said...

As I understand it part of the problem with bullcalves was a backlash against veal in the eighties. Calves living in little boxes, fed on milk.

That's iffy from a welfare perspective, but it'd solve two problems if it could be brought back into fashion.

Milk has become a discount item over here as well. Ridiculously low prices. Myself, I buy 'organic' in the hope that it helps the farmer and the cows a bit.

wv: gostimen - de gostimen non disputandum

The Ridger, FCD said...

Milk-fed veal is definitely problematic, but regular old veal is what most dairy bull calves become. (Or dog food.) Same for excess heifers, I imagine. Nobody's going to waste time and feed raising them for beef, because even if there wasn't a slight red-meat backlash, dairy cattle just don't produce beef to compete with beef cattle. Especially since nobody can use hormones anymore to make 'em fatten up.

Robd said...

I was on Sao Miguel in august and noticed the large number of cows.
A farmer told me all cows on the Azores had 5 tits:
4 of their own and 1 of the EU.
That fifth of course giving most...