Ryan Gosling *Hearts* Dairy Cows, but Needs a Biology Lesson

800px-Ryan_Gosling_TIFF_2011Ryan Gosling joined a long list of controversial celebrities this week.  Securing his position among the likes of Alicia Silverstone, Perez Hilton, and Dennis Rodman, the actor, who is best known not for his acting talent but the “Hey Girl,” internet meme, issued a letter to the National Milk Producers Federation on behalf of his “friends at PETA.”

The letter, addressed to Jerry Kozak, director of the NMPF, decries the practice of dehorning naturally horned dairy cattle. Citing concern over the pain inflicted by the procedure and the lack of painkillers used by farmers who carry it out, Gosling concluded, “As you know, there is a simple and humane alternative: breeding for polled cows. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and third-party animal welfare auditing groups recognize the benefits of polled genetics for the dairy industry, so there is absolutely no reason—and no excuse—for the cruel, unnecessary practice of dehorning to continue.”

Which would be fine, if only his assertions were true. Dehorning is a painful procedure, but breeding horned cattle out of the dairy herd is no more “simple” than teaching B-list celebrities that partnering with domestic terrorism groups undermines their credibility; and if we could accomplish that we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The genes that control horn expression in cattle, like most, have both dominant and recessive versions. The dominant gene, P, produces polled cattle — those Gosling would like to see used to eliminate the practice of dehorning — while the recessive gene, p, results in horned cattle.

Now, as anyone who completed eighth grade biology with a pencil and a punnett square understands, recessive genes are the most difficult to breed away from due to their pesky habit of persisting undetected, masked by the expression of the dominant genes that override them. They’re the reason two brown-eyed parents can have a blue-eyed baby and my infant niece is a ginger despite having a long paternal line of African-American genes behind her, for instance.

In order for recessive genes to be exhibited they must exist in pairs, free of the dominant version of the same trait that would hide them away. A naturally horned cow is homozygous for the horned version of this gene, carrying two p genes, which means they also, when bred, can only pass on that recessive gene. In other words, horned cows can only produce horned calves when bred to horned bulls, and since the large majority of dairy cattle in the United States are horned, the offspring are almost always horned, too.

This isn’t to say the dairy industry isn’t aware of the potential for polled genetics to reduce the need for dehorning or that they’re not pursuing that option. As of 2009 there were just under 3,000 polled registered Holsteins — the breed of cattle that makes up the vast majority of dairy herds — in the United States. That’s less than 1% of the overall number of registered Holsteins, but a significant increase according to Joel Knoeck, a farmer engaged in furthering polled genetics in dairy herds. In recent years, dairy sire herd books, the catalogs dairy farmers use to choose sires for artificially inseminating their cows, have even begun denoting polled sires to help farmers make breeding decisions. But this hardly makes it a “simple” solution — infusing genes from just 1% of the national dairy herd into the rest of it would mean a rapid shallowing of the overall genetic pool, for starters — or even a 100% effective one. Beef cattle herds benefit from many generations of exactly the kind of selective breeding Mr. Gosling advocates, but because horned calves occur as much as 25% of the time even when breeding two polled cows together, dehorning remains a necessary chore on beef ranches as on dairy farms — even if at a decidedly lesser frequency.

The problem isn’t Mr. Gosling’s message so much as its delivery; the way it oversimplifies complex agricultural challenges and misinforms consumers through shocking language meant to instill fear. Likely penned from a concrete-surrounded adobe and informed by Gosling’s tumultuous childhood in large cities in Canada, a life that offers him little in the way of an informed perspective of agriculture, the letter highlights a significant disconnect in our country’s agricultural information supply chain. It’s not just celebrities, either. With very few exceptions, the people our society look to most for their food and farming information are little more than talking heads and scribbling hands, writing and proselytizing from urban offices well removed from the farms that feed the world.  Some boast impressive formal education, sure, but nothing in the way of actual experience and it’s the latter that keeps food on the table.

A fine-tuned food future is at our fingertips, all it requires is the tuning out of the ill-informed, the shock jocks, and the publicity seeking celebrities among us. The only question is whether or not we’re up to the challenge.

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