'Computer dating' produces high-yield milk cows

Scattered across the America's pastures are 4.5 million highly productive dairy cows that bear out an old maxim: Everyone, including consumers and taxpayers, benefits when private industry and government work as allies, not adversaries.

Just how productively government and industry can work together is shown by the national Dairy Herd Improvement Association, set up 75 years ago in Michigan. Currently, the association keeps detailed computerized records on 39 percent of the country's 10.8 million dairy cows -- along with 12,884 top bulls.

These records are used for matchmaking. And they play a major role in the dramatic growth in US milk output, with association-registered cows averaging an extra 4,000 pounds of milk per year compared with non-registered herds.

Key to the system are the dairy farmers who voluntarily register their cows with the association's 10 regional centers from North Carolina to California. The farmers pay an average of $1 per cow per month -- or more than $50 million annually -- to keep the association's computer tapes spinning.

The farmers pay for association supervisors to test each individual cow's milk production each month. Then the association gathers this information and presents it, free, to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Both dairy farmers and government officials like the arrangement. The dairymen themselves organize and pay for gathering the information, while government is left with the delicate job of impartially processing the data.

The government-processed information is valuable to the industry because it is "credible." It reflects an accurate picture rather than possibly being influenced by particular interest groups.

Consumers benefit from the system, because higher productivity helps keep prices down. "Consumers would be paying $5 a gallon for their milk," says USDA dairy husbandman W. E. Shainline, "if we weren't doing this work."

Mr. Shainline is responsible for processing the twice- yearly USDA reports on bulls at the federal department's Animal Improvement Programs lab in Maryland. These reports are based on the precise milk production records for all the cows sired by individual bulls.

Shainline stresses that not only herd improvement association contributors but all dairy farmers benefit from the published results. Using the records and artificial insemination, farmers can pick the best bulls for improving their own herds.

But many farmers want even more information. To meet this growing demand, the private DHI Computing Service in Provo, Utah, which first computerized the association's records in the 1950s, is expanding its computer system. DHI president Bliss Crandall already uses his computers to "herd" 875,000 dairy cows all the way from Pennsylvania to Chile.

Mr. Crandall expects this expansion to continue because of the uniqueness of the dairy industry, where "the dairymen harvest their crop every day" -- and so generate masses of data on production. He also expects the techniques will be used with beef cattle and other livestock. Presently, the National Swine Improvement Federation is studying ways to apply computerized testing systems to the pork industry.

California dairyman Tom Sawyer is one well-satisfied computer customer. He milks 420 head and says his own computer terminal linking him to DHI in Utah "is just about an indispensible tool to managing a herd of milking cows."

Because he uses the association's system more than most farmers, Mr. Sawyer pays about $750 a month for computer help in such management decisions as chosing feed levels, the right moment for breeding, and when to "cull" or sell each cow. He finds the system pays and feels it will pay still greater dividends if it helps him break into the tough business of supplying bulls, which the USDA records prove to be superior.

Dairy scientist Frank Murrill with the University of California at Davis says the system works for men like Sawyer because "the more he knows about his individual cows, the more intelligent decisions he can make in managing them."

Meanwhile, complaints continue to mount over the $1.3 billion spent last year in government price support for the dairy industry. Such complaints add weight to the argument that there should be more emphasis on programs which encourage cooperation, not clashes, between govern ment and private industry.

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