The Cliffords can extend the number of days their cows give milk with rBST, a synthetic version of a growth hormone present in all cows to varying degrees. The net gain for the Cliffords is an extra $45,000 to $50,000 a year. That's critical for a New England dairy business squeezed by profits that have remained flat since the late '70s, says Mr. Clifford. High fuel prices will cause the farm to lose money this year.
"My issue comes to having a tool in a tool box that has been approved, and that is managed, and fits my business model, being taken away because of someone's misperception of it," says Mrs. Clifford.
Most dairy scientists concur that the FDA-approved injections are safe, according to William Condon, a bovine endocrinologist. In fact, he says, there is no test to tell the difference between milk from cows injected with rBST and milk from those that aren't. Farmers are asked to sign a pledge in lieu of a cost-effective testing regime. Milk from a cow with naturally higher levels of hormones would be identical to milk from a cow boosted to the same level with additional hormone shots, he says.
"The public is afraid of the word 'hormone,' so when they think the milk contains no hormones they'll pay extra money. All milk contains hormones," says Mr. Condon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
However, rBST has critics. "There are a whole host of differences" between the milk of cows receiving growth hormones and that of cows that aren't, says Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
For one, injected cows are more likely to experience mastitis, an udder infection, he says. The disease and the antibiotics used to treat it contaminate the milk of these cows, he adds. Farmers counter that cows must be removed from the milk supply during treatment for the infection.