When it comes to milk production, Gigi the cow is queen.
"She's the diva of all divas," says Robert Behnke, a Brooklyn, Wis., dairy farmer and Gigi's owner.
And she's earned that diva status: Earlier this year, she produced more milk in one year than any other cow had done before — just shy of 75,000 pounds of milk, roughly equivalent to 8,700 gallons. That's triple the national average for a dairy cow to produce in a year.
Like an Olympic sprinter, she has a nutrition plan, a doctor who sees her regularly and technology to measure her progress.
But really, it's her massive stature that helps her produce such incredible amounts of milk. She weighs nearly a ton and she's 5-feet-2-inches-tall. Behnke says she's as wide as a grown man's shoulders.
She's built to produce.
Gigi is a Holstein — that breed of iconic black and white dairy cows. And her record-breaking year tells the dairy industry that, for right now, 75,000 pounds of milk in a year is the threshold for what Holsteins' bodies are capable of.
But that threshold has been changing for years. Since dairy cows were first brought to the United States, their owners have been trying to coax more and more milk out of them. They've done that through dairy parlor design, barn layout, feed rations, milk scheduling and hormone treatments.
Now the focus is on genetics: Cows are being bred to be larger, hungrier, and more productive. But this drive to raise ever-larger, hulking Holsteins has some prominent livestock advocates ringing alarm bells.
Thousands of new calves are born every day on the country's 46,000 dairy farms. Most are the product of artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies meant to breed more productive, more efficient cows.
Wide adoption of artificial insemination in the U.S. dairy herd began in the 1970s. These days, the largest cattle genetics companies, like Wisconsin-based Alta Genetics and Ohio's Select Sires, hand out catalogs to prospective semen and embryo buyers, with charts for studs and dams with measurements on everything from teat length to udder depth to rump width.
With genetic improvements, American milk production has increased at a quickened pace. In the last 10 years, production per cow has gone up 14 percent.
Modern Holsteins are now "definitely bigger than the beef cows," says Tom Lawlor, a geneticist with the Holstein Association USA.
"We're just sifting through the cattle, identifying the ones that are just a little bit more productive, more healthier, and trying to get more progeny from them and fewer from the other ones," Lawlor says.
Animal Welfare Concerns
Like nearly everything in agriculture, the increase in milk production doesn't come without a few trade-offs.
"Instead of going for maximum milk production, let's optimize it," says Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal science professor who has been critical of the dairy industry.
A narrow focus on production blinds dairy farmers to other important health issues on the farm, like lameness and a drop in reproduction rates, she says. Smaller cows tend to produce less milk, but last longer and calve more often. It may not be as profitable right away, but it pays off, she adds.
"If you go for the big, gigantic Holsteins, you only get two years of milking," Grandin says. "That's not very sustainable."
Even the cows' height brings up an animal welfare issue. Grandin, who stands at 5-foot-8, says she has seen Holstein steers with shoulders as tall as she is.
"They don't fit on the trucks and they're tearing up their backs. And we have a height limitation due to bridges," Grandin says. "You're not going to change that."
Some dairies have begun to back off on production and breed smaller, but hardier cows, Grandin says. She praises large, progressive dairies like Indiana-based Fair Oaks Farm, which lets visitors tour its facility, complete with a rotating milking apparatus.
Handling The Herd
If breeding ever-larger cows has some drawbacks, one way to coax more milk out of the herd is to focus on cow comfort and handling. On a cold winter morning at a farm with nearly 2,000 cows in Colorado's northeastern corner, veterinarian Doug Ford walks past an open dirt pen where the cows are able to move around.
"Just look at these cows, look how content they are," Ford says. "They are just enjoying the morning."
As the veterinarian for several large dairies near Brush, Colo., his philosophy on increasing production comes down to handling. Even cows with impeccable pedigrees will have trouble producing if they're not treated well, Ford says. He teaches dairy staff low-stress methods, which allow the animals to move more freely between the milking parlor and their pens, focusing on how workers place their bodies in relation to the large bovines.
"In the industry we all have the same feed trucks, the same vaccines," Ford says. "What sets one operation apart from the other? It's the people, and it's the way they treat the animals."
Luke Runyon reports for Harvest Public Media and is based at member station KUNC in Greeley, Colo.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with a story of a history-making cow. Gigi is the cow's name. She lives just outside Madison, Wisc., and she produced more milk in one year than any other cow had before. Gigi's record year means something for the wider system that churns out milk, butter and ice cream. Here's Luke Runyon of our member station KUNC.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Gigi's owner Bob Behnke glows with pride when talking about his record-breaking cow.
BOB BEHNKE: She is the diva of all divas.
RUNYON: And she's a diva for a good reason. She produced nearly 75,000 pounds of milk. That's triple the national average.
BEHNKE: In the years past, we have taken her to a cow show where she got the best udder award at a national show, so absolutely a gorgeous udder.
RUNYON: Gigi is a Holstein, the iconic black-and-white dairy cow. And this diva is fierce. She clocks in at nearly a ton, and her shoulder rises to 5 feet 2 inches tall. Her abilities are coded into her genes.
BEHNKE: She's built in order to do this. Being extremely long, wide, right now I could place my head and shoulders between her front legs.
TOM LAWLOR: They definitely have gotten bigger, and they're definitely bigger than the beef cows.
RUNYON: Tom Lawlor is a geneticist with the U.S. Holstein Association.
LAWLOR: We've bred them to produce a lot of milk, so what's behind that is that they have a big appetite.
RUNYON: Lawlor says what Gigi represents is a ceiling, what Holsteins' bodies are capable of - at least for right now. Thousands of new calves are born every day - the product of artificial insemination used to breed more productive cows. That's led to an American dairy herd that churns out more milk per cow than at any other time in history. But that increase doesn't come without a few trade-offs. Temple Grandin is an animal science professor at Colorado State University.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: Instead of going for maximum milk production, let's optimize it.
RUNYON: Grandin has been critical of the modern dairy industry. She says some farms are too focused on breeding hulking Holsteins. She says bigger cows tend to be weaker and sicker. And while smaller cows produce less milk, they last longer and have more calves.
GRANDIN: And if you just go for the big, gigantic Holsteins and only get two years of milking, that's not very sustainable.
DOUG FORD: Here comes the feed truck. Here comes breakfast.
RUNYON: Veterinarian Doug Ford is taking some of Grandin's advice to heart. His focus is on cow comfort, one way to coax more milk out of the herd. We're at a farm with nearly 2,000 cows outside Brush, Colo., in the state's northeastern corner.
FORD: Just look at these cows. Look how content they are. They're just enjoying the morning.
RUNYON: Even cows with impeccable pedigrees will have trouble producing if they're not treated well, Ford says. He teaches dairy staff low-stress handling techniques to help the animals move more freely between the milking parlor and their pens.
FORD: In the industry, we all have the same feed trucks, the same vaccines. What sets one operation apart from the other? It's the people, and it's, you know, the way they treat the animals.
RUNYON: It's that intertwined relationship between humans and the animals we rely on that will ultimately determine just how far we push a cow's body and figure out its limits. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.
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INSKEEP: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.