Engineering’s sour effect on dairy farms

Last weekend I went walking in the deep woods, back to where I saw bear signs last summer. Back where vertical-walled ravines slash through the granite hills, where beaver have 50 metre runways to the trees they’re cutting. To where a male deer grunted his warning and set me wondering if it were the big buck whose huge tracks I’ve been seeing all summer.
Every now and then, when I feel the engineers are taking over my life, I need to do this. It’s my escape into sanity.

Lately I’ve been reading about recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), and the madness of the scheme sets my nerves to jangling. Nobody needs rBGH. No group of farmers clamoured for someone to invent it. No consumer groups pleaded for its development.


Monsanto Inc., the U.S. farm pesticide company, invented it with visions of corporate profits dancing in its head. Injected into cows, rBGH will increase milk production 10 to 15 per cent.


The problem is, there’s plenty of milk without hormone-induced super production. So Monsanto’s job has been to convince farmers and consumers that this is a really good idea.


In Canada, testing is still going on. There are concerns that milk from rBGH cows will promote cancer in humans.


Aside from any specific link,I think that adding more hormones of any kind to our diet is wildly foolish. We already get hormone residues from meats and poultry. And we know that there is a huge scientific concern over hormone disrupters — either chemical hormone mimics, or vagrant hormones from dietary sources — that upset the normal functioning of our endocrine systems and are believed to cause birth defects and cancers of our reproductive systems (for instance breast cancer and testicular cancer).


Monsanto’s response has been to drop the word hormone from the name of the drug, which it now calls recombinant bovine somatropin (rBST).


As far as I’m concerned, invention of rBGH is yet another case of the myopic fascination with nuts and bolts that engineers have — in this case genetic engineers. They are the true children of Descartes. I think they really do believe that it’s the parts that are important, not the whole.


In this frame of mind, I went to see Ann Clark, associate professor of crop science at the University of Guelph.


She gave me an armload of material to read on dairy farming. It catalogued how dairy farming used to be integrated with nature, but how farmers were persuaded to abandon integration for mechanized systems based on the model of industrial production.


Now, it’s not unusual for large farms to have hundreds of cows that rarely leave their stalls. They eat processed feed grown in monoculture plantations. Their manure drops through stall openings and the resulting slurry is pumped into huge holding tanks. From there it’s pumped into trucks for spraying on fields.


It’s a system designed by engineers. It came out of the same mentality as rBGH.


For a while it worked just fine, producing handsome profits, although it drove some small farmers out of business. But now, profit margins have shrunk.


Meanwhile, as study after study shows, farmers who have returned to the old ways may be producing slightly less milk, but they can double their profits.


They’re doing this by getting out of expensive, high-end, technical systems, and returning cows to rotational grazing. This way they save on the cost of buying or growing feed, and then storing it. They don’t have as much work feeding and bedding the cattle. And they don’t have to buy as much pesticide, fertilizer, and fuel.


In short, the cows do all the work. They forage for their own food, and they spread their own manure. Costs to farmers can drop dramatically.


Mind you, farmers have to learn how to juggle a lot more variables. But it delights me no end to think that their example of working with nature, instead of against it, may give some engineers second thoughts.

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