As I am digging through old folders, I came across this article that I had written few years ago when I was a student at CSU Fresno. I had to take an Advanced Journalism class and my teacher then, who was an investigative reporter pushed me to write this article about a local industry. Although I had mixed feelings about the way he pushed me to take a certain side on the issue about our dairy industry and the usage of rBST, this version I am posting here has been edited to reflect more closely to my perception of the matter. I hope you’ll enjoy!
THE RISE AND FALL OF POSILAC IN CENTRAL VALLEY’S DAIRY BELT
For 14 years, Donny Rollin was just one of the many farmers in the Central Valley dairy belt that used the growth hormone that increased the milk supply at his 2,000-cow dairy in Riverdale. Rollin’s farm, cleverly called Rollin Valley Farms, is one of the many dairy farms here in the Central Valley. Surrounded by groves of pomegranate trees and 700 acres of Sudan grass, wheat, and alfalfa, Rollin’s farm looks almost picturesque during the springtime. Yet about two years ago, Fed-ex trucks would trundle out to his farm every few weeks and drop off a new supply of the bioengineered hormone rBST, better known as Posilac. Needles in hand, Rollin and his dairymen would inject a tiny white vial of the clear liquid into his Holsteins.
Today, Rollin no longer uses Posilac. At the age of 44, he is a third generation dairyman. Like the other 98% of the family-owned dairies here in California, Rollin and his family live and breathe their dairy business. Two years ago, when the price of milk dropped due to overproduction, coupled with a growing consumers’ demand for rBST free milk, Rollin stopped using Posilac. For the past two years, Rollin’s cows are hormone free, and he’s not alone. In fact, here in the nation’s most productive dairy belt, it is almost impossible to find dairy farmers these days that will admit to still using Posilac.
The initial research on Posilac told the consumers that by the time the milk has been packaged in milk cartons, these artificial hormones would have already been broken down by the cows themselves; therefore no harm can be done to humans. While the FDA said that there were no significant differences shown between the milk tested from rBST-treated and untreated cows in their 1993 study, the potential side effects of the hormone injections created considerable amount of doubts and criticism. Animal health activists got involved first, and pretty soon, the everyday milk-chugging consumers were worrying about what’s being passed into their milk. The concerns first began when the side effects started to show up on the cows that were injected with rBST. With the cow’s utters already full of naturally produced milk, the increase in milk production induced by the hormone led to the overextending of the cow’s utter size, causing utter infections to occur.
Another major cause for concern was mastitis. Mastitis occurs when the injection area swells up due to tissue infections. So when the images of the cows’ utters swelling up with mastitis and independent research claims that consumption of rBSt milk can be linked to breast, colon and prostate cancer started to circulate the internet, Posilac suddenly became the drug that tainted the milk industry. Grocery stores began to take notice of the fact that milk labeled “without rBST” was selling better, went back to their dairy processors and demanded more of it.
To cope with the negative backlash and the threat of decreasing sales, many dairy co-ops and processors demotivate rBST usage by imposing penalty charges on milk that is produced with Posilac injections. California Dairies Incorporated, the largest dairy co-op in California, charges a 50 cents penalty per 100 pounds of milk for dairies that use rBST injections. To a great number of dairymen here in California, penalty charges such as these are so unattractive; many of them ultimately stopped using Posilac it. However, to the others who found the product useful, one thing that still rings true: “The product was a success, but it was the public perception that made it a failure,” said Gerry Higginbotham, PhD, a researcher and dairy nutritionist who assists with the dairies in Central Valley.
Removing Posilac injections altogether was also another unexpected challenge that many dairymen had to deal with. “There were guys that were using Posilac, and when they stopped all the sudden their production took a big hit and cows would crash.” Rollin explains about some of the devastating effects that he had heard from fellow dairymen. Cows would literally stop producing, or produce at very low levels when the injections stopped. While Rollin’s cows adjusted just fine when he took them off the injections two years ago, how other dairymen were using these injections and what stages they were injecting their cows with Posilac, was the deciding factor on how well the cows would perform after the injections stopped.
When the consumer demands for rBST-free milk began to grow, the dairy industry in the Central Valley was at a tipping point where milk oversupply was met with economic recession. As a result of bad economy and low milk prices, many dairymen were forced to close down the business that they have had for generations. “There are a few that have gone out… In Fresno, mostly the smaller guys just couldn’t compete with the high feed price and low milk prices at that time,” Higginbotham said. The combination of high feed cost and low milk price, along with environmental regulations and high cost of operation, it was tough for many of family owned dairies to overcome this giant hurdle. At the same time, a lot of the dairymen who were using Posilac quit using the product as a result. By 2008, Rollin, and many other dairymen in the valley had stopped injecting their cows with Posilac.
Posilac never made sense to Rick Adams. Located in Laton, Adam’s family has been in the dairy business since 1936. When the product was first introduced, the salesmen of Posilac went to every dairy farm and gave out free samples for dairymen to try, Adams recalls his first encounter with the product. “Only stuff we ever tried was the samples they sent us,” said Adams.
Recalling the better days when milk prices were high and feed costs were low, it was easier to be in the dairy industry then. But when it comes to milk production, Adam doesn’t believe in pushing his cows at the sacrifice of highest output. Instead of trying to get more milk out of the cow, he feels that the wellbeing of an animal is more important. “I personally don’t like it [Posilac] because it’s just taxing on the cow,” Adams believes, “in fact, some say that we might be extra easy on our cows because we don’t want to push our cows too hard, and we suffer financially because of it.”
Every day, Adams takes great pride in cutting fresh grass for his cows. With the smell of fresh cut grass in the air, the cows would run towards the manger and enjoy the grass that was just standing in the field ten minutes ago. “They love the smell of it, and it makes them eat better… If we take good care of the cows, they’ll take good care of us, we don’t need to inject them with stuff that they don’t need,” said Adams.
When it comes to who still uses Posilac, no one will or can tell nowadays. “Almost everybody in the co-op quit… There’s less pressure, and less chances of them actually having health issues,” said Rollin. Rollin is happy with the fact that he no longer has to use injections on his cows, and that his dairy is doing well. Posilac was supposed to be a supplement drug that would “revolutionize” the dairy industry. Yet nearly $2 billion of loss revenues later, Monsanto quietly sold the disgraced Posilac at a fraction of the cost to the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s agricultural division Elanco, for a price tag of $300 million.
Charlie De Groot, another dairyman here in the San Joaquin Valley, feels that Posilac is an efficient tool despite its stigma. Even though he himself has never used the product, he feels that the consumer’s negative perception is what ultimately made the product unusable. “I know dairymen who have top notch facilities and treat their cows really good that have used it. For them, the product is a very useful tool. It worked for them because of the way they manage their dairy,” said De Groot. De Groot himself however, never thought the product was a good fit for his dairy for many reasons. “It takes a lot of time and resources, ultimately I feel like there’s a lot more other things that are better for the cows than just trying to push more milk out of them by giving them the shot… we didn’t feel it was economical for our dairy to use it,” said De Groot.
De Groot is another third generation dairyman. He manages the family dairy called De Groot and Sons Dairy with his younger brother and father. At a very young age, De Groot already knew that taking over the family business was something that he was destined to do. Today, in a small part of town called Easton on the outskirts of Fresno, De Groot oversees the family dairy that stretches over 2,000 acres. Like many other dairymen here in the Central Valley, De Groot doesn’t just raise cows. He is involved from growing and harvesting the row crops that his cows eat, to perfecting the gene pool for future heifers. Running a dairy farm isn’t just a job, it’s part of many dairymen’s heritage, with a whole lot of passion mixed in.
It’s only spring but Rollin’s skin is already ripened by the sun. As the sun sets, the orange light beaming through the stalls of cattle shelter, Rollin picked up some wheat barley mix with his right hand, sprinkling the feed mix into the dusk wind as it blows from the west. With machines in the distance humming and the occasional cattle mooing, it has been a long day for him at the farm. Even though he’s tired from the day’s work and can’t wait to get home to his four kids, there is still enough passion left in his eyes for anyone to see that this is what he truly enjoys doing every day. It’s a passion about doing what’s best for his animals, his business, while preserving that way of life and hoping that his kids would someday continue doing. Through milking more frequently and better breeding, farmers like Rollin, Adams, and De Groot have each found their working formulas that make their businesses thrive.