Increasing yield met with increasing challenges from activists
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- On the eve of his retirement, Oregon State University Extension dairy specialist Mike Gamroth has only one complaint.
But it's a controversial one.
"I'm really appalled at the public's (perception of) rBST," he said. "I've never seen a product come out with more safety factors, and the public's reaction to it is totally out of bounds. It really concerns me."
What's more, Gamroth added, rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, allows dairymen to produce more milk on less land, with fewer inputs and waste management problems.
Citing human and animal health concerns, pressure groups have targeted the use of rBST, mounting campaigns against dairies that use it.
Gamroth, who is also an animal science professor, said that technology such as the rBST growth hormone and genetically modified organisms are the best solution for feeding the world's mushrooming population.
Raised in Woodburn, Ore., Gamroth earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from OSU in 1973. Seven years later he was awarded a master's degree in agriculture, with an emphasis on animal science, ag economics and crop production.
One of the numerous projects he's involved with, the Integrated Organic Program, is comparing operations on organic and conventional dairy farms. One of the goals of the program is the exchange of knowledge among organic producers in the state.
"We'll pick out things that are working successfully for organic producers and share that information within the organic community."
While the size of Oregon's dairy herd hasn't changed all that much since Gamroth joined OSU -- around 100,000 cows versus 115,000 today -- the output per animal has almost doubled, from around 10,000 pounds of milk per year to 19,750 pounds.
An even more dramatic change has been the number of licensed dairy farms in Oregon.
"We had 1,350 dairy farms (when I started), and today we're less than 300," he said. One of the biggest declines occurred around Mount Angel. "I could spend a whole day there (years ago) and talk to 10 dairy farmers within four to five miles of one another. Today there's like three."
The Siletz Valley and southern coastal area have also withered.
Gamroth said that many of the dairy farmers who ceased operations picked other sectors to work in, such as nursery and row crops. They sold their cows to other dairies, including start-ups formed by California dairy transplants.
During his tenure at OSU, Gamroth has written over 150 articles for trade publications and scientific journals.
He has also taught and advised hundreds of animal science and dairy students and mentored the OSU Dairy Club's dairy cow sale, called the Beaver Classic.
When Gamroth first joined OSU 37 years ago, he spent a lot of time helping dairy farmers improve their nutrition programs. Not so anymore, he said.
"It's gone from husbandry practices to issues, like animal welfare and labor management."
Many of the issues are "moving targets." For example, no sooner had OSU Extension helped dairymen with their waste management programs than activists and regulatory officials were calling for farms to clean up their emissions.
Hometown, Woodburn, Ore.
Marital Status: Single; two grown children
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees from Oregon State University
Hobbies: Gardening and backpacking