Saturday, September 13, 2014

Small farms won't feed the world

This week I interviewed a young farmer who is in the process of adding a dairy cattle herd to his farm and I had the chance to ask him about his breed choice. I wanted to know why he was picking breeds with lower productivity.

Growing up, our farm had a herd entirely composed of Holstein cows. Holsteins produce more milk per animal than any other breed, which has made them the most popular dairy breed in the country.

Yet, there were a few families in our 4-H clubs that had other breeds - Ayrshires, Brown Swiss and Jerseys. While Jersey milk has a higher fat content than the other breeds and has its own niche market, I never understood why small farms had brown cow herds instead of black and white. I assumed some of them were part of a family tradition, or the farm already had a sizable brown breeding population from previous generations and the current generation didn't think it was worth switching.

But why do the new first-generation farmers choose these breeds? Jim, the young farmer I met, is getting Ayrshires and Brown Swiss. Why opt for unproductive breeds, it's like choosing the Tiger missiles in Top Gun for the NES?

Jim explained it's really about marketing. The locavores he caters to associate Holsteins with factory farming, and brown cows with wholesomeness. Witnessing these breeds give them emotional comfort when they are making a purchase.

So there you have it. Once again, we see consumers flocking to marketing and packaged images at the expense of productivity. Jim is being rational by appealing to the prejudices of his customers.

Now keep this in mind when evaluating preposterous claims that the world should return to local food production. Holsteins are better at feeding the world than Ayrshires, but local farmers have incentives to choose inferior breeds.

A 2013 article in Hoard's Dairyman attempts to estimate the percentage of America's cattle population by breed. This is difficult because there's no official count, but about half of the cows are registered in the Dairy Heard Improvement program. These records show that the percentage of dairy cows who are Holsteins in America has fallen from 92.55 percent in 1985 to 85.56 percent in 2012.

However, this decline isn't from locavores, as small farms make up a small percentage of the national herd. The analysis concluded that a greater demand for cheese is pushing up the Jersey breed percentage, and well as an increase in mixed breeds. There is indeed a use for brown cows in the modern world, but notice the striking difference between choosing a breed for utility and choosing a breed for marketing.


  1. Oh. My. God.
    That Tiger Missile reference made my day!

  2. Thanks Abner. When I wrote it, I knew the right people would get it.