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.There's less to this story than meets the eye.
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.
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.