No rush for dairy farmers to clone their herd

Bob Clark

Despite a recent Food and Drug Administration ruling stating that eating cloned animals is safe, don’t expect to see farmers rushing out to replicate their herds.

The FDA announced meat and milk from cloned animals pose no more health risk to people than food products from normal animals.

Jim Grace, a farm business management educator at Steuben County (N.Y.) Cornell Cooperative Extension, said the cloning of local barnyard animals is, at best, a long way off.

“No, there’s nobody around here who does that,” he said. “It’s probably a minimum of 10 years off, maybe more.”

The most common type of cloning, according to the FDA, is somatic cell nuclear transfer. The process involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and implanting genetic material from a donor animal into the cell. By cloning, it is possible to create genetically identical animals.

Arkport, N.Y., dairy farmer Andrew Merry said the primary purpose for cloning is to reproduce prize-winning cows who cannot reproduce another way.

“If they have a really good bull and it breaks a leg or something, they can take DNA and produce multiple offspring,” he said, adding the majority of clones he has seen are funded by investors who are not in the agriculture business. He said very few farmers use cloning.

Merry, who oversees an operation that milks around 1,100 cows, has looked over several cloned animals on his travels to other farms around the country.

“I’ve seen four or five clones,” he said, “and they look like cows. You can’t tell them apart. But there’s only a handful of them in the whole country. I think there’s only about 50 in the whole continental United States.”

The price has to be right before even the largest dairy farmers run off to cloning companies.

“It’s an expensive proposition,” Grace added, saying the vast majority of clones worldwide are created in university laboratories.

The cost of creating a cloned cow is around $50,000, said Merry, who added the price seriously limits the number of cloned animals that are born. That makes the possibility of cloned animals being eaten or milked negligible.

At Alfred State College in Upstate New York, agriculture students are learning about cloned animals and possible benefits, but the college will probably not include cloned animals in its dairy herd.

“We haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” said Dorothea Fitzsimmons, director of animal and dairy science. “I don’t foresee any cloning work on the horizon.”

She also said cloning would not go well with the proposed organic certification for the college’s dairy farm.

“(Organic farming proponents) are positive that cloning will never have a place in the organic community,” she said.

Even so, the technology may come to the campus in the future.

“I wouldn’t completely close this door, but I don’t see it on the horizon,” she said. “In five years time, we may be having a different conversation, though.”

If the price tag on cloned animals drops to a more realistic price, however, Grace, Merry and Fitzsimmons agreed cloning would open up to new markets. Grace and Merry said large-scale dairy farmers may, at some point in the future, be able to increase production by cloning their most-productive milk cows.

“That’s the goal for it,” Grace said of increased production. “There would be more milk for consumers.”

Even if costs do drop over time and cloning livestock becomes a viable possibility for farmers, several dairy farmers said they would not want clones in their herds.

“I hate to use the Mother Nature card,” said Canaseraga, N.Y., dairy farmer Harv Lacy, “but I’ve been a farmer all my life and I feel the science is just going too far.”

He said dairy cows created by artificial means, including cloning and older methods such as sexed semen and in-vitro fertilization, could increase milk production to the point where declining income may potentially drive small-scale dairy farmers out of business.

“We need a tight supply and a high demand,” Lacy said, adding an increase in more-productive cows would lower milk prices for farmers.

“Dairy farmers are struggling now,” he added, saying although milk prices are at all-time highs, the overhead cost of feed, fuel and fertilizer are already cutting into profit margins and cost small-scale dairy farmers greatly.

Another problem Lacy sees coming is a larger proportion of female cows being born.

“We don’t need a flood of female cows,” he said.

Birdsall, N.Y., dairy farmer Kim Shaklee feels the same way.

“I think it forces us to the edge of the unknown, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be,” he said. “Animals and plants have evolved well enough by natural selection that they suit their purposes well.”

Shaklee, who has around 80 cows on his farm, does not see the need for more-advanced ways of breeding cows or increasing his milk output.

“We’re happy with the current means of production,” Shaklee said.

The Evening Tribune