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New demand for milk rekindles old controversy

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Albany lawmakers have trumpeted that boosting milk production is needed to meet demands for the state’s Greek yogurt boom.

But educators say an artificial growth hormone some farmers inject into cows to do that, rBST, is getting a negative reception among consumers who spot labels on milk when they grocery shop, a trend that has created a challenging environment for farmers who wish to use it.

Most of today’s dairy processors and bottlers tout “rBST-free” labels on milk jugs and cartons or labels with the message “Our farmers pledge not to use artificial growth hormones.”

But research has not determined any chemical difference between rBST — recombinant bovine somatotropin — and the naturally occurring version of the protein hormone present in all cows, bovine somatotropin, said Michael E. Van Amburgh, professor of animal science at Cornell University, Ithaca.

The majority of dairy farmers in the state don’t treat cows with rBST, he said, because there is a limited number of processors with policies allowing it.

“The assumption is if they can create the market appearance of having a more wholesome product that they’ll see more milk purchased and that all dairy farmers will profit,” Mr. Van Amburgh said. “But that doesn’t work because our fluid milk consumption continues to drop.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rBST to be used in dairy cattle in 1993. The hormone was developed and marketed in 1994 by Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology corporation, then sold in 2008 to Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly. The FDA recommends, but does not require, bottling companies with rBST-free policies to include the following label: “The FDA has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rBST treated cows and non-rBST treated cows.”

But misleading public information about the subject still abounds, Mr. Van Amburgh said. Byrne Dairy in Syracuse, for example, has a frequently asked questions page on its website devoted to why its milk is rBST-free. The website states farmers “certify in writing that they do not add any growth hormones to their cows.” It also states, “Our customers have always deserved the best and most healthy products possible,” implying milk with artificial hormones is inferior.

That is a sensitive subject for Sackets Harbor dairyman Ronald C. Robbins, who uses various technologies to get the most milk from his cattle herd at Robbins Family Grain. Artificial growth hormones have boosted milk production from the farm’s 880-cow herd by more than 10 percent. On average, cows produce about 100 pounds of milk per day.

“As a modern dairy farmer, I feel that technology is important to remain competitive, and rBST is a product that is just the artificial form of a (natural) hormone. Producers use it under the scrutiny of veterinarians and representatives from companies.”

Though research shows milk isn’t affected by rBST, studies show the hormone can cause diseases in cattle. Twenty-seven countries have banned its use, including Canada and Japan. In the United States, numerous animal welfare and health organizations oppose its use, including the Humane Society of the U.S. and Physicians for Social Responsibility. On its website, the latter group cites studies conducted by the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture in which farmers have reported several harmful effects from the hormone, including abortions, birth defects, increased twinning rates, lameness and greater rates of mastitis, a form of udder infection.

Artificial hormones are used on about half of Mr. Robbins’s herd, especially with heifers that have begun their first lactation cycle. The product encourages cows to have a stronger appetite, he said, inciting them to eat more forage and increase milk production.

When heifers give birth to their first calf, he said, they need more food because they are simultaneously producing milk and completing a growth cycle. The cows are injected with hormones every two weeks.

“It’s important for them to be encouraged to eat,” he said.

Farmers have been encouraged by lawmakers in Albany to produce more milk to meet demand at Greek yogurt plants. But to do that, Mr. Robbins said, they need access to proven technology. Though buying decisions are dictated by the consumer in the milk aisle, Mr. Robbins said, labeling from dairy processors has created a stigma about the hormones.

“They’re charging the consumer more for (rBST-free) milk, and they’re not paying the farmer for it,” he said. “This is a management decision I’ve never felt should be dictated by those who are taking the product and making money out of it, and it should be dictated by the FDA or USDA. If I truly felt that some of this was consumer-driven I’d be a lot better with it, but I know for a fact it’s not.”

Ronald A. Kuck, dairy and livestock educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, called the way bottling companies market milk with farmers’ pledges an unfair equation. Farmers receive a small premium for signing pledges in some instances, he said, but it doesn’t compare to the gains they could realize by using the technology.

“They get to charge consumers more, but farmers don’t get compensated,” he said.

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