Vermont Ag Secretary Backs Milk Hormone Ban
By Susan Smallheer
October 7 2006
MONTPELIER - Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr added his voice this week to the growing chorus urging Vermont farmers to stop giving their dairy cows the synthetic hormone rBST.
Kerr, speaking to the Vermont Dairy Industry Association's annual meeting in Burlington on Thursday, said it makes sense for Vermont's dairy farmers to stop using rBST, especially after the two largest milk processors in New England have said they no longer will accept milk from cows given the synthetic hormone.
Last month, both Dean Foods and H.P. Hood Inc., said consumer demand was growing substantially for organic milk and at the same their customers were demanding milk be hormone-free.
The synthetic hormone, recumbent bovine somatropin, boosts milk production in cows, on average, by 10 extra pounds of milk a day. With many dairy farms struggling for financial survival, rBST is viewed as one way of increasing the size of the monthly milk check.
Kerr said an estimated 20 percent of Vermont's 141,000 dairy cows are treated with rBST, and he said the push for rBST-free milk by the giants in the milk industry would make it more difficult for those farmers to continue to sell their milk, since the two types of milk have to be isolated from one another, from cow to dairy case.
"If the market is moving that way, we don't want to miss that move," Kerr said in a telephone interview before his talk.
He said the 20 percent estimate is a ballpark figure, because Monsanto, which manufactures the hormone under the brand name Posilac, refuses to divulge Vermont-specific figures. Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett said 30 percent of the dairy herds in the United States are treated with rBST.
Kerr said that while he is convinced rBST is safe for both the cow and the consumer, public perception is just the opposite.
"It doesn't matter. The consumer doesn't want it and it isn't going to work," Kerr said. "We all know in our heart of hearts that consumers rule."
He added, "Our short-term thinking is defensive - but we have to recognize what are the trends and what consumers want. They want pure. They want natural. They want minimally processed."
Kerr said he hoped to sit down with representatives from dairy giants Dean and Hood, which control about 90 percent of the Northeast's fluid milk market, to negotiate a premium that would compensate dairy farmers for lost production when they switch to rBST-free milk. Some dairy cooperatives do that already.St. Albans Cooperative Creamery pays farmers 20 cents per 100-weight of milk for not using the synthetic hormone, according to Leon Berbhiaume, general manager of the 500-farm cooperative.
Six-farm Thomas Dairy of Rutland has always paid its farmers extra not to use the synthetic hormone, John Thomas said. He declined to identify the amount of the premium, except to say it is in the neighborhood of the one paid by St. Albans.
"Our customers told us they didn't want anything to do with it," Thomas said of rBST. "We had a lot of calls and it wasn't hard to gauge the public's opinion."
Thomas, who stopped milking cows a year ago, said he was sympathetic to both sides. The hormone is stressful on the cows, he said, but farmers should be able to use "any tool they can" to boost production and increase their bottom line.
"I don't blame the farmers for using it, they have to pull out all the stops," Thomas said.
But Thomas, like other dairy farmers and processors contacted for this story, refused to identify specific farmers who use rBST, and only one admitted to providing it to their cows.
The issue will be on the agenda next week at the regular monthly meeting of Agri-Mark's directors, according to spokesman Doug DiMento of Agri-Mark.
"Milk prices are the lowest they've been in 25 years," DiMento said from Agri-Mark headquarters in Methuen, Mass. He said the real pressure is on the Dean Food farmers, most of whom are St. Albans Co-op members.
"We have to wait and see how the market goes. We can't pay a premium unless we get it from the market," DiMento said.
Kerr said his comments at the Burlington conference "shocked" dairy farmers and industry leaders who attended. But part of his job is to provide strategic thinking, Kerr said, and he believes stopping the use of rBST is best for Vermont's farmers in the long run.
Amy Shollenberger, policy director for Rural Vermont, said Kerr's statements this week surprised her.
"We're thrilled that the Agency of Agriculture is saying that if the market is demanding it, BST should be taken out of the milk supply," Shollenberger said.
But she also said Kerr was "talking out of both sides of his mouth" by coming out against the use of rBST while continuing to support genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
"He says that contamination from cross pollination is not an issue and the state should not be involved in it," she said.
Burchett, the Monsanto spokesman, repeated what Monsanto has said previously. "Our milk is safe, healthy and nutritious." He said there is no way to distinguish hormone-free milk from the milk produced by cows receiving the Monsanto product.
"Farmers should have the choice. When farmers' choices are restricted, they should be guaranteed a premium," he said.
Burchett said that Posilac is injected into a cow every 14 days, at $6 a dose. On average, a cow produces 10 additional pounds of milk a day if treated with the hormone, he said. Posilac was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, and became available in 1994, he said.
Bob Foster, one of the five Vermont directors for Agri-Mark, and one of the owners of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury, said his family farm uses rBST. He said that if it stopped using the hormone, the business would lose $90,000 to $100,000 a year in income. With a herd of about 360 milking cows, "We aren't a super big farm," Foster said.
For some milk producers, using rBST may make the difference between solvency and going out of business, Foster said.
He said discontinuing rBST use is a complicated issue all around - for dairy cooperatives, for farmers and for cows.
One thing that needs to happen, he said, is for large milk processors such as Dean Foods and H.P. Hood to pay farmers a premium for not using rBST. Foster said a premium of about $1 for every 100 pounds of milk would provide fair compensation. So far the processors haven't agreed to do that, he said.
The next challenge, he said, would be enforcement. Placing a marker in Posilac would make it possible to detect its use, but so far Monsanto has refused to do that, he said.
"There's no way of testing for it," he said. "It creates a whole integrity issue in the industry."
And then there's the effect on the cow, Foster said. A farmer can't stop giving a cow Posilac overnight because the hormone affects the way a cow's body makes milk. Cows taken off the synthetic hormone without a long tail-off period put on weight, which affects their fertility and their ability to "breed-back," he said.
Often, such cows are lost to milk production and have to be sold for beef, he said.
Agri-Mark has been discussing the issue for a long time and will do so again next week. "We're polling the membership and seeing what the impact will be," Foster said. "We're looking at how to segregate the (pickup) routes."
Foster added, "It's not something we take casually. It has lots of ramifications for the industry and the dairy producers. This is a tough, tough question."