Bovine somatotropin is also called rbST, bST, BGH, bGH, recombinant bovine somatotropin or bovine growth hormone. This hormone is a naturally occurring protein hormone found in all dairy cattle that is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain.
The purpose of somatotropin is the coordination of nutrient-use in the body to make sure all nutrients are used where they are most needed.
When cows are healthy and producing milk, somatotropin is directed to the udder for milk production. In young, growing calves somatotropin makes nutrients available to help support growth and development.
Sometimes dairy farmers give animals extra somatotropin so that they can produce more milk. When we do this, we are just giving the cows more of a protein that they already have in their bodies.
When cows have a calf and start producing milk again, they gradually produce more and more milk every day until she reaches her peak milk production, usually around 60 days after she calves. Peak milk production means the cow has reached her highest amount of milk that she can produce after calving.
rbST is typically given to cows between day 57 and 70 of a cow’s lactation. Giving extra rbST helps cows to extend a higher level of milk production and helps cows eat and produce more efficiently.
So why exactly do dairy farmers use rbST? Why do we want to make cows produce more milk than they typically would on their own?
The main reason rbST is used is to get more milk from cows to help our farms be more profitable as a dairy operations. Just like any other family run business, we have to make a profit to keep afloat. Just as some family businesses may increase the prices of the products that they sell in order to make more money- dairy farmers do the same thing by giving cows extra hormones.
Around the world, rbST helps dairy producers to feed the demands of the growing population. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, by the year 2050 producers are going to need to make 70% more food than what they do today because of the growing middle class and population. Supplementations like rbST will help us to produce more milk to meet these demands.
Now that we know the facts, let’s look at some common misconceptions about rbST.
Myth: rbST/BGH causes mastitis.
According to PETA, “Animals are often dosed with bovine growth hormone (BGH), which contributes to a painful inflammation of the udder known as mastitis.”
Fact: Mastitis is an inflammation of a cow’s udder and is a very costly dairy cattle disease. According Dairy Science and Milk Quality Management staff at Virginia Tech University, “mastitis is nearly always caused by microorganisms, usually bacteria, that invade the udder, multiply in the milk-producing tissues, and produce toxins that are the immediate cause of injury.” In plain terms, this means that cows get mastitis usually due to bacteria that has entered the udder. This could be caused by poor milking hygiene, poor environmental sanitation, etc. Furthermore, since the approval of rbST in 1993, there have been studies involving hundreds of commercial herds that looked at mastitis, cultures for mastitis organisms, somatic cell counts, culling rates and vet costs. These studies found no evidence that the use of rbST was a significant concern for mastitis.
In summary, giving cows a dose of rbST will not cause bacteria to invade the udder. To make this as clear as possible, rbST will not cause mastitis in cows.
Fact: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as other leading health organizations, have concluded that there is no significant difference between the milk from cows treated with rbST and milk from cows that are not treated with rbST. All milk naturally contains very small amounts of hormones, and studies show that the hormone levels of milk from cows that are treated with rbST are within the normal range.
Myth: Non-dairy “dairy” products are being sold because milk isn’t safe to consume.
Fact: Milk companies have responded to consumer requests for choices in the dairy aisle. In general, this decision is a result of market demand and is not related to any health or safety issues. All milk is wholesome, safe and nutritious. All milk contains hormones because all cows produce hormones naturally.
Myth: rbST is harmful to the welfare of animals.
According to PETA, “After their calves are taken away from them, mother cows are hooked up, several times a day, to milking machines. These cows are genetically manipulated, artificially inseminated, and often drugged to force them to produce about four and a half times as much milk as they naturally would to feed their calves.”
Fact: Yes, we do take calves away from their mothers. Yes, we do hook our cows up to milking machines at least twice a day. Yes, we do artificially inseminate our cows. And yes, sometimes we give our cows drugs. PETA is 100% correct that we do these things. But PETA also thinks when we partake in these actions, that we are not thinking about the welfare of our cows. In reality, we do these things FOR the welfare of our cows.
Calves are taken from their mothers shortly after birth for their protection. Cows are milked twice a day at most dairy farms to keep our cows comfortable, as it is not comfortable for us to leave our cows with udders full of milk. We artificially inseminate for safety of both farmers, children and cattle on dairy operations. And yes, drugs are sometimes given to dairy cows to allow them to produce more milk. But dairy cows have always produced more milk than necessary to feed their calves. Even years ago, farmers spent time milking cows by hand, after they fed their calves.
The bottom line is: don’t believe everything you hear. We live in a fast-paced world filled with whirling social media, blaring news announcements and whizzing information. Often, it’s hard to decipher what’s factual and what’s not. But that’s why I’m here as an agvocate, to educate, inform and debunk the untruthful myths.