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State's largest milk co-op bans bovine growth hormone, some question timing

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — New England’s largest dairy co-op announced last week that it is phasing out use of a controversial bovine growth hormone that boosts dairy cows’ productivity. Come August, Agri-Mark Inc. of Methuen, Mass., will no longer accept any milk from hormone-treated cows at its New England processing plants.

Agri-Mark spokesman Doug DiMento said that the board of the farmer-owned co-op decided to phase out the product — which is made by the Monsanto Corp. and called bovine somatatropine, or rBST — in response to market pressure and not the scientific debate over the hormone’s potential side effects.

The synthetic hormone was introduced around 15 years ago, and enables a cow to produce 12 to 15 more gallons of milk per day than it would otherwise.

“There’s no question that (the hormone) has helped (farmers) produce more milk more efficiently and more profitably. It also helps with herd health issues,” said DiMento. “But from our perspective, we’re trying to meet the demands of the marketplace. Whether the demands of the marketplace are good or bad, right or wrong, we have to meet those demands.”

DiMento said that until recently rBST has primarily been an issue in fluid milk sales. Recently, though, Agri-Mark has had customers asking for bulk Cabot cheeses and nonfat dry milk made without use of the synthetic hormone.

The upcoming ban will affect between 600 and 650 farms in New England, including around 350 farmers in Vermont. The ban will also affect non-members who sell their milk to Agri-Mark.

DiMento said that the board struggled with the decision to ban a legal product that helps farmers boost productivity, but that the intention is to preserve the market for Agri-Mark’s products.

“Our responsibility is to protect our farmers’ markets,” he said.

Farmers using the hormone will be allowed to continue to ship their milk to Agri-Mark’s New York processing plants, but will have to pay an extra trucking fee. 

Cornwall farmer Kirstin Quesnel said that she was disappointed to hear of Agri-Mark’s decision to no longer accept milk from producers using what she called an efficiency tool.

“At the end of the day, all milk is the same,” wrote Quesnel in an e-mail to the Independent. “BST is a naturally occurring hormone that cannot be traced in milk. All American dairy products are among the most tested and regulated foods in this country and are among the safest in the world.”

On this count, Vergennes large animal veterinarian Joseph Klopfenstein agreed.

Klopfenstein works with three farms in Addison County that currently use the rBST hormone, tending a total of around 2,000 cows in the county treated with the drug.

“In my opinion, and there’s a lot of science to back it up, there are really no adverse health effects,” Klopfenstein said. “It’s a legal product … but it’s still sort of a touchy issue because of public perception.”

Many producers in the area have already opted to phase out the hormone, Klopfenstein said, a decision typically prompted either by requests of other local co-ops or the cost of the hormone itself.

“You hear about injecting a cow with a hormone, and that brings up all kinds of negative connotations,” Klopfenstein said. But he, like Quesnel, argued that the milk in the carton is exactly the same. BST, Klopfenstein said, is a hormone already produced naturally by cows.

“There are some real valid questions around this product,” he said, mentioning the economic and philosophical debate some producers have about flooding the market with too much milk. “But animal health is not one of them, and the fact that the milk is somehow tainted is not one of them.”

Rep. Chris Bray (D-Addison 5) who sits on the Milk Commission, said that the commission has not discussed rBST use on a statewide level, and that any rules about the hormone have come from the marketplace and not the state legislature. 

“In general, it’s been an individual farmer’s choice as to whether or not they thought it was appropriate for their herd,” Bray, a New Haven resident, said. “Consumers are just choosing more and more to ask for this.”

Because there is no way to test milk for rBST, Bray said that bans like Agri-Mark’s will rely on affidavits and pledges signed by farmers guaranteeing that the synthetic hormone has not been used.

Klopfenstein and Quesnel both said that the ban comes at a bad time for farmers. Quesnel said that farmers are facing precipitous drops in milk prices in the next three months that will result in milk revenues covering only about 66 percent of a farmer’s cost to produce milk.

“It’s poor timing on the part of Agri-Mark,” said Klopfenstein. “This is a very difficult time for dairy farmers to make money.”

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