Ada 3-ETN: a breed apart

Clone: A genetically engineered Holstein fetches more than 10 times the price of regular milk cows for reasons other than milk.

March 10, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

It's a brave new world in the barnyard.

Cloned cows are becoming commonplace just five years after scientists created the first one, a Holstein steer named Gene.

A handsome black-and-white Holstein heifer, created from a few cells scraped out of a champion's ear, sold for a mere $31,000 in Westminster yesterday.

A Midwestern milk cow syndicate bought her, paying more than 10 times the going price for a fairly good milk cow. But the unromantically named Ada 3-ETN went for far less than the first commercially available Holstein clones, which sold at national auctions a little more than a year ago.

Spotlights, smoke machines and other hoopla surrounded those clones, which sold before they were born for $80,000 to $100,000.

But at the Carroll County Agricultural Center yesterday, the event was more down-home than high-tech. Church ladies sold vegetable soup and homemade blueberry pie just a few yards from the straw-covered stage where Ada 3-ETN made her debut at the Maryland Holstein Convention.

"This is definitely the first time and the last time," said New Windsor dairy farmer Marlin Hoff, who owns the original Ada, a many-ribboned, all-American cow. "It's a very expensive process."

Hoff said it took 60 embryos to yield two cloned calves. He commissioned a Massachusetts genetic engineering firm to produce the embryos from Ada's cells. At Hoff's Coldsprings Dairy, they were implanted in several surrogate mothers.

The two cloned calves cost "in the middle five figures," Hoff said. "I'm hoping to actually break even with this one and make money on the one at home."

It was partly a business decision and partly homage to Ada, now 18 and long ago put out to pasture. "She was a great cow," Hoff said.

About 200 Maryland dairy farmers watched intently, scribbling notes in their programs, as auctioneers Norman Hilland his nephew Chris Hill, both of Mount Airy, prepared to sell Ada 3-ETN and 84 other Maryland Holsteins.

Their business has a lingo so obscure it makes Pentagon briefers seem plain-spoken. A typical description from Norman Hill:

"She is a red carrier," said the auctioneer. "You talk about a great cow family! Her dam made 33,000, 82 of fat, 69 of protein. Quite nice."

That means the black-and-white animal had a red-and-white father and may produce her own red-spotted offspring.

"It's a novelty thing. The genes are no better," explained dairyman Paul Yoder of Oakland.

The cow's mother produced 33,000 pounds of milk in a year or less - "That's a lot of milk," Yoder said. And the mother's milk was especially rich in fat and protein, which means it fetched top dollar.

"Twenty-eight and a half, now 9, gimme 9, gimme 9, 9, 9, 9, 9, who's gonna do it?" intoned Chris Hill.

Two spotters scanned the crowd, urging on the bidders with a raised eyebrow or a quick count on their fingers. When a bidder in the back row raised his hand, spotter Brian Garrison hollered "Yep!" and yanked his arm downward like a train conductor pulling a steam whistle. Across the aisle, spotter David Lentz yelled while the placid cows turned slow loops across the stage.

The bidding was brisk and prices were good, said Yoder, who predicted that some of the cows sold here would end up in local, state or national cow shows.

"The goal of every Holstein breeder is to win a national show," Yoder said.

"Hey, these guys will pay horrible prices for a show cow," agreed his brother-in-law, Calvin Schrock of Oakland.

That's about the only option now for the owners of America's 300-plus cloned cows. The Food and Drug Administration won't decide until next year whether to allow the animals' milk to be sold, so it must be dumped.

But Maryland dairy farmer Ronald Heffner of Jefferson, who successfully bid for Ada 3-ETN on behalf of Illinois dairyman Jeffrey Butler and two partners, said the syndicate intends to breed the cloned heifer and sell her offspring to farmers eager to upgrade their herds.

The big money is in breeding cows, not milking them, he said.

Butler "knows how to make money, and he will," Heffner said.

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