Modern dairy's Super Cow gives more milk, but bulls are forlorn

February 22, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

Jill mothered Jolly, and Jolly mothered Jodie, and five generations later Jetta gave birth to Super Cow. Her name is Jetlag. Find her grazing in her Howard County dell, and you could say: What a splendid cow.

Or . . .

"You could say: 'Tony, it's got four legs and a tail, but that's no cow; that's a milking machine,' " says Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. "And I'd have to say: 'Yeah, you're right.' "

Jetlag, a 4-year-old Ayrshire, produces three times more milk at Maple Dell Farm near Lisbon than her great-great-great-great-great- grandmother Jill produced a mere 18 years ago. That qualifies Jetlag as Super Cow, but it hardly distinguishes her.

Super Cow is everywhere.

In the quest for fulfillment and profit, scientists and dairy farmers have transformed the placid cow into a tightly tuned machine. The transformation is so complete that today in the United States the fewest cows produce the most milk ever.

"These cows are working harder than ever for the people of the world," says Charles Iager, a dairy farmer near Laurel and vice president of Maryland Holstein Association.

"They've been forced to," responds his wife, Judy.

David Patrick, the understated farmer who oversaw the breeding of Jetlag, puts it this way: "We try to keep our cows at peak performance."

The modern dairy farm clings by a thread to its idyllic image of pastoral grace. Behind the scenes, the dairy farm is a pulsing example of technology at work.

The controversial bovine somatotropin (BST), or bovine growth hormone, which went on sale Feb. 3, is but the most recent development. The synthetic hormone, which replicates a naturally occurring hormone in cows, can boost milk production by as much as 20 percent.

As early as the 1950s farmers began condemning their snorting, unpredictable bulls to a forlorn life -- or a slaughterhouse death -- and began impregnating their cows by artificial insemination with semen from choice bulls across North America.

Then in the 1980s farmers embraced surrogate motherhood by transferring embryos from their best cows into their laggards, resulting in better calves and more milk by the herd.

All this took place as the docile creatures munched high-powered feed prescribed by nutrition specialists and parceled out by computers.

"Agriculture has gone from a way of life to a business," says Tom Moreland, research manager at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Howard County. "And it's run like a business."

The center, which includes a farm, is part of the University of Maryland College of Agriculture.

Mr. Moreland, 38, manages its herd of 200 Holsteins for research in nutrition, health, and other areas, as he puts it, "to support the super cow."

Research here and elsewhere has paid off. In 1940, 23.7 million cows in the United States produced 109 billion pounds of milk. In 1993, 9.7 million cows produced 151 billion pounds.

That's 59 percent fewer cows producing 39 percent more milk.

In that half century, the average cow's annual production shot up from 4,622 pounds (or 537 gallons) to 15,580 pounds (1,812 gallons). One gallon of milk is 8.6 pounds. Cows in many herds average more.

"Ten years ago it was really something for a cow to make 20,000 pounds of milk," Mr. Moreland says. "Now, cows in this herd had better make 20,000 or they're gone."

Lonely bulls

He credits the surge, as do other experts and farmers, to revolutionary advances in nutrition, management and genetics. Advances in artificial insemination are mind-boggling.

Mr. Moreland slides a book across the table. The book lists the top 400 bulls whose semen is for sale, including this: how much milk their daughters produce, how much fat and protein it contains and -- you have to be a farmer, or forlorn bull, to appreciate this -- what their daughters' udders look like.

You can buy the semen to breed one cow for an average of $30 to $40. But order now.

"They have no reserve for these fellows," says Mr. Moreland, who will explain how humans get semen from bulls if you ask. "They work the poor boys to death."

Actually, bulls are the real losers in this onward march of technology. Some dairy farms don't even have bulls; they rely exclusively on artificial insemination. Mr. Moreland has one, which he calls a "clean-up bull," meaning it "services" only the cows that reject artificial insemination.

"He'll be lucky around here if he breeds a cow a month," Mr. Moreland says.

It's another story for the females. The exceptional milkers receive a series of hormone shots prompting them to produce more than one egg, occasionally as many as 12. When they come into heat they're bred artificially, and a week later the embryos are removed and implanted into surrogate mothers.

"So instead of your best cows giving you one calf a year," Mr. Moreland says, "they can give you anywhere from five to a hundred calves a year."

In other words, says Mr. Iager, the farmer near Laurel: "These days they're having litters."

Family farmers

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