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.
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.
The dairy industry is in crisis, with prices so low that farmers are selling their milk below production cost. The industry is struggling to cut output. And yet the wave of excess cows is about to start dumping milk into a market that does not need it.
“It’s real simple,” said Tony De Groot, an early adopter of the new breeding technology, who milks 4,200 cows on a farm here in the heart of this state’s struggling dairy region. “We’ve just got too many cattle on hand and too many heifers on hand, and the supply just keeps on coming and coming.”
The average price farmers received for their milk in July was $11.30 for 100 pounds, down from $19.30 in July 2008. The retail price of milk has not dropped as much, but it is down 24 percent in a year, to an average of $2.91 a gallon for milk with 2 percent fat.
Desperate to drive up prices by stemming the gusher of unwanted milk, a dairy industry group, the National Milk Producers Federation, has been paying farmers to send herds to slaughter. Since January the program has culled about 230,000 cows nationwide.
From what I know the market for these sorts of products has framed by a lot of subsidies and incentives. Increased productivity through better science should be good for any industry, but here you go slaughtering cattle to reduce production and keep the prices up. OPEC is simple compared to this. These sorts of policies are only practical because we live in a world of surplus food production.