STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with a story of a history-making cow. Gigi is the cow's name. She lives just outside Madison, Wisc., and she produced more milk in one year than any other cow had before. Gigi's record year means something for the wider system that churns out milk, butter and ice cream. Here's Luke Runyon of our member station KUNC.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Gigi's owner Bob Behnke glows with pride when talking about his record-breaking cow.
BOB BEHNKE: She is the diva of all divas.
RUNYON: And she's a diva for a good reason. She produced nearly 75,000 pounds of milk. That's triple the national average.
BEHNKE: In the years past, we have taken her to a cow show where she got the best udder award at a national show, so absolutely a gorgeous udder.
RUNYON: Gigi is a Holstein, the iconic black-and-white dairy cow. And this diva is fierce. She clocks in at nearly a ton, and her shoulder rises to 5 feet 2 inches tall. Her abilities are coded into her genes.
BEHNKE: She's built in order to do this. Being extremely long, wide, right now I could place my head and shoulders between her front legs.
TOM LAWLOR: They definitely have gotten bigger, and they're definitely bigger than the beef cows.
RUNYON: Tom Lawlor is a geneticist with the U.S. Holstein Association.
LAWLOR: We've bred them to produce a lot of milk, so what's behind that is that they have a big appetite.
RUNYON: Lawlor says what Gigi represents is a ceiling, what Holsteins' bodies are capable of - at least for right now. Thousands of new calves are born every day - the product of artificial insemination used to breed more productive cows. That's led to an American dairy herd that churns out more milk per cow than at any other time in history. But that increase doesn't come without a few trade-offs. Temple Grandin is an animal science professor at Colorado State University.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: Instead of going for maximum milk production, let's optimize it.
RUNYON: Grandin has been critical of the modern dairy industry. She says some farms are too focused on breeding hulking Holsteins. She says bigger cows tend to be weaker and sicker. And while smaller cows produce less milk, they last longer and have more calves.
GRANDIN: And if you just go for the big, gigantic Holsteins and only get two years of milking, that's not very sustainable.
DOUG FORD: Here comes the feed truck. Here comes breakfast.
RUNYON: Veterinarian Doug Ford is taking some of Grandin's advice to heart. His focus is on cow comfort, one way to coax more milk out of the herd. We're at a farm with nearly 2,000 cows outside Brush, Colo., in the state's northeastern corner.
FORD: Just look at these cows. Look how content they are. They're just enjoying the morning.
RUNYON: Even cows with impeccable pedigrees will have trouble producing if they're not treated well, Ford says. He teaches dairy staff low-stress handling techniques to help the animals move more freely between the milking parlor and their pens.
FORD: In the industry, we all have the same feed trucks, the same vaccines. What sets one operation apart from the other? It's the people, and it's, you know, the way they treat the animals.
RUNYON: It's that intertwined relationship between humans and the animals we rely on that will ultimately determine just how far we push a cow's body and figure out its limits. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.