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Cows happy to be full of methane

Wednesday, May 30, 2001

As we lurch again to the harrowing precipice of Dairy Month, coming Friday to a June near you, the various dairy lobbies are blitzing the national media with moving cheese testimonials and cow health updates. It's not just the udder nonsense anymore.

Seems the whole point of Dairy Month is for the dairy industry to see if it can milk a columnist for 700 words without having to withstand a single cheap udder joke. Sorry, try again.

But, topically enough, the big news wafting off the modern dairy farm goes to the pressing national issue of energy usage. Farmers coast to coast are turning on to the substantial energy benefits available in cow manure. One Minnesota farm, for example, converted enough methane in the manure from its 850 cows to power the entire dairy operation with approximately enough energy left over to heat 78 homes.

This is surely one of those "personal virtue" anecdotes Prime Minister Dick Cheney referred to in detailing the Bush energy policy. Cow gas conversion would never be viewed as a useful procedure by an administration for which energy exists strictly to increase the number of country club memberships held by oil company executives.

Not to be critical.

If one farm in Minnesota can save itself 35 tons of coal and 1,200 gallons of propane by turning to an energy source that's not only plentiful but downright unavoidable, the implications can't help but be significant for a country flirting with serious energy crunches. I was so intrigued by this manure magic that I contacted Julie Balmer, who does cow PR for Dairy Management Inc. and the National Milk Producers Federation. She fired back the first e-mail I've ever received that ended, "attached below is a graphic of the cow manure conversion process."

OK, I'm not that intrigued.

I was more interested, frankly, in her claim that due to technological advances in milking, "today's dairy cows are healthier and happier than ever before."

Skilled veterinarians can no doubt determine the relative health of cows from era to era, but this "happier than ever before" methane struck me as dubious. How can we quantify cow happiness? They still can't go to Kennywood. They never win the lottery. How cheery can you be, really, wearing the ridiculous spotted overcoat year 'round?

Needed was some testimony from a leading cow psychologist. I'd have settled for a trailing cow psychologist but I was fortunate enough to reach Dr. James Jarrett with the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (how could I make that up?), who spent more than 30 years designing housing for dairy cows and tweaking the various factors of their farm environment.

"We soon learned," he said from the organization's hindquarters in Rome, Ga., "that environmental factors not only impacted the animals' health but had a direct impact on production."

Yes, I said, but how do I know that when cows are alone, they hum Gershwin tunes?

"You are correct in that it's extremely hard to quantify a state of happiness," Dr. Jarrett said. "One factor, though, is the presence of the stress hormone cortosol. It's been measured in various trials to determine the pain levels of animals during certain surgical procedures, the results leading to different techniques relating to anesthesia. Animals tend to produce and perform best when they are under the least amount of stress. It applies to racehorses, hunting dogs, just about everything.

"Cows produce more milk and better quality milk when they're in more comfortable surroundings and are treated well."

Production per cow is at an all-time high, according to Dr. Jarrett. A typical contemporary cow produces three times the milk of the 1940 model. Moreover, there is no evidence that mechanical milking and other technology such as electronic earrings used to monitor individual cow health have pumped up cow stress. Even if those earrings don't exactly go with that overcoat.

Of course, it's possible to have a cow who is stressed and even downright unhappy for some purely metabolic reason.

"No two of us are alike, and no two cows are alike," Dr. Jarrett said. "Different stimuli affect them in different ways."

I know there are cows out there none too happy about Dairy Month, for example. Lotta pressure. Lotta scrutiny. Some have to be about one udder joke from snapping.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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