Adventures of Super Cow

March 04, 1994

The next time you find yourself driving along a country road and you spot a cow chewing lazily on her cud and swishing her tail at the flies, have some respect.

No mere Bossy or Elsie, the creature you behold might, in fact, be . . . Super Cow!

As The Sun's Tom Keyser noted in a recent article, the average milk-making bovine of the Nineties squirts out 16,000 pounds of the nutritious liquid every year, or more than triple what its 1940s counterpart offered. (A gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds.)

Credit the amazing advances in nutrition, facility management and genetic engineering for allowing American dairy farmers to produce all this milk with a third fewer cows than were down on the farm five decades ago.

The latest production figures are markedly higher than even those of the early 1980s. Consider the statistics on Maryland dairy production, which is led, in order, by Frederick, Carroll and Washington counties. (Howard County's milk production ranks 13th among Maryland jurisdictions, according to the state of Maryland's 1992 tabulations.)

While the number of milk cows in Maryland fell from 117,000 in 1986 to 99,000 in 1992, the average annual production per cow rose during the same period from 13,846 to 14,586 pounds.

That's not just a lot of milk, it's too much. As production has climbed, consumption has dropped. Concerns about the fatty content of certain dairy products and the ever-expanding popularity of highly marketed soft drinks have made milk less of the beloved all-American beverage it was, Cal Ripken Jr.'s efforts notwithstanding.

Consumers also have fretted over the federal government's approval last month of the controversial growth hormone known as bovine somatotropin, or BST. Many milk suppliers, including the two that provide most of Maryland's milk, say they will shun BST-treated milk in response to consumer fears.

The drop in consumption is one reason Maryland dairy farmers have lobbied for the creation of a milk commission that would set minimum prices farmers receive for their product, just as similar boards do in neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia. However, lawmakers in Annapolis are cool to the idea, as are we. Legislators hint that the best the farmers can hope for this year is a formal study of the issue.

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