Eastern Iowa is home to many dairy cow breeders, many of whom are working to genetically engineer higher-quality and more cost-efficient cows.
At Regancrest Farm in Allamakee County, one family is on a quest to breed a better Holstein to raise the level of dairy quality worldwide.
Sheri Danhof is a third-generation dairy farmer. Her family milks some 750 Holsteins, but they also breed the cows for traits that are both good-looking and efficient.
For example, Danhof said, "if the udder is stronger and better-attached, then they're able to produce more milk in that udder over many lactations or many calves. Then, again, that cow would be more valuable for that farmer."
Breeders can enhance genes that promote everything from larger udders and a longer milking life, to disease resistance and more protein in the milk.
Regancrest Farm's work has won many awards and drawn a lot of attention, with dairy farmers from all over the world traveling to the farm to buy cows with specific traits. Danhof said a group from France is arriving Monday.
"Each market is different. It depends on what country you're from or what your consumers are demanding," Danhof said.
For example, a farmer that lives in a very hot country might not want a cow that is too black or too white, Danhof said, as the mostly black cows overheat more easily and the mostly white cows can sunburn.
Danhof declined to name the exact prices Regancrest Farm has fetched for its animals, but she said, generally, a well-bred dairy cow with strong genetics can sell for anywhere from $30,000 to $250,000. Individual embryos are sold, too, and can fetch a price ranging from $1,500 to $4,000.
Larry Tranel is a dairy specialist with the Iowa State University Extension office. He said breeding cows for better genetics can lead to longer and healthier lives for the animals, as well as increased milk production.
If dairy farmers can get the same amount of milk from fewer animals, he said, that leads to cost savings for the farmer, which, in turn, could eventually lead to cheaper milk. Tranel cautioned, however, that inflation, plus supply and demand will always play a role in that price.
With modern genetics testing, breeders can tell while a dairy cow is still a calf whether the animal has the genetic traits for high milk production. A farmer can then invest in the cows that will yield more milk down the line.
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