The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
It’s fitting that the most recent issue of MILK, which focuses on sustainability, hits mailboxes at a time when the industry may have seen the last of rBST. In early August it was announced that Elanco had sold the Posilac (brand name for rBST) business to a Brazilian company, including the manufacturing facility. Today, rBST is cleared for use in only a few pockets of the dairy industry.
Of the many definitions around sustainability, the one that guides people the most is the ability to maximize inputs by creating as much output as possible. More bushels per acre of land. More pounds per cow from the same amount feed. It’s an important part of sustainability as we look toward feeding a growing global population from dwindling acres of tillable land.
There are few products that improved milk production efficiency as easily as rBST. With the right management adjustments, that shot of rBST every two weeks could bring as much as 10 pounds more production. Producers, nutritionists and veterinarians quickly learned how to manage cows that were on rBST to maximize the response without impairing animal health.
At its height, it’s estimated that as much as 20% of the U.S. dairy herd was on rBST. But the success, unfortunately, was short lived.
Once consumers caught wind that dairy producers were giving cows growth hormones every two weeks just to drive up higher production, the tide turned. What was a useful production tool soon became the target of consumer backlash.
The story of rBST is a case study of the dominance of consumer perception, and honestly the dairy industry never had a chance. Keep in mind that rBST was really the first product to have such negative press, and the dairy industry wasn’t prepared to respond. Consumer groups attacked the technology, and soon retailers banned the use of the product to appease consumer wishes. Pretty soon only a handful of producers could legally use the product.
You could probably credit rBST with starting absence label marketing. As retailers realized the consumers wanted products without rBST, you started to see labels on dairy products like “hormone free” or “made from cows not administered rBST”. Now it’s hard to find any food label without some sort of absence claim.
As critical as rBST was to the growth in production here in the U.S., it’s gratifying to see how producers have adapted without the use of the technology. Most of the herds that were on rBST regained the production in a short period of time. It was easier for those that phased out over time rather than quitting cold turkey, but management changes allowed for the production to come back.
Producers figured out how to improve production efficiency without the use of rBST. Now that’s sustainable.
What are your thoughts on rBST? Are you concerned about what could happen to other production practices? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.