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Just like Alex Rodriguez and Major League Baseball, the dairy genetics industry has a drug problem.

You cannot go very far without reading something about the latest drug scandal involving a pro athlete.  This week it`s 13 major league baseball players headlined by Alex Rodriguez the league’s highest paid player.  Experts in sports doping believe that the problems in baseball — and cycling, track and field and other sports — remain widespread and that policing sports is proving to be nearly impossible.  With recent events at a few of the dairy cattle shows, has me asking whether the dairy industry also has a drug problem.

There are many similarities between the professional sports world and the dairy cattle show scene.  (Read more:  Is the Show Ring the Center of the Dairy World? and Dairy Cattle Showing: For Ego or Profit?) However, for me this is not just a show ring issue.  The problem of people wanting to test the limits and sometimes go over the line is not a new one to the dairy industry.  There have been breeders whose ethics have had a greater effect on the industry than that of those in the show ring.  (Read more:  Has Genomics Knocked out the Hot House Herds?  And The Hot House Effect on Sire Sampling).  While a cow that wins  the show may catch the attention of many breeders, it’s the 2yr year old who is getting illegal drugs (such as rBST in Canada) to help inflate their production, or their pictures enhanced or udders juiced for picture day that causes a bigger issue for the industry (Read more: No Cow Is Perfect – Not Even in Pictures and Introducing the Dairy Marketing Code of Conduct).

Why do we test in the first place?

According to major league baseball, the point of the testing is to keep the sports-entertainment industry functioning, to maintain its loyal public and to stay in business.  For these very same reasons, wouldn`t it be a good idea to set up some form of rules around the use of performance enhancing drugs in the dairy industry?

Yes I am well aware that there is the use of ultrasounds at the Royal and World Dairy Expo.  However, they can only catch so much and it means that some exhibitors just switch to a different drug of choice.  For some that means the use of dextrose to get that cow alert and veins popping while she is in the show ring.  Though many have admitted that dextrose is not that effective, it still could be viewed as a performance-enhancing drug.  The big issue is that, whenever there is testing, there will always be those who are one-step ahead of the tests.

However, as I said earlier, the bigger issue is not with the show ring but rather with the fact that some of the genetic index stars are getting that extra edge on classification day, or on the day they are pictured or they are even getting the day-to-day production boost they need in order to get ahead of the rest.  These animals have absolutely no testing to prove whether they are simply living up to their genetic potential or why they are far exceeding it.

In talking with many average producers, and especially in talking with many commercial producers – both groups who represent the largest purchasers of semen, I have heard a consistent theme, about how they have lost trust in the seed stock industry, especially certain high index cattle.  They feel that generation after generation have shown that they are unable to cut it in the working day-to-day environments.

Do we really want to clean it up?

The dairy industry is guilty of ignoring the drug issue, just like the NFL. Just because you don’t have positive tests, does not mean there is not an issue.

Even with all the talk about what needs to change, there has been very little done over the years to actually bring about change.  It’s kind of like the way the NFL does not want to admit it has an issue with drugs.  Do you really believe a 300-pound lineman can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds?  The National Football League generates millions and millions in revenue, clobbers everything in the television ratings and is a national obsession.  The NFL brags about its drug-testing program and, while they catch a few players from time to time, the inference is that the majority of the players are clean.  Yep, that’s probably true.  Those offensive linemen are bulking up to 335 pounds on good diet and weight lifting.  Sure they are.  Instead of dealing with the issue, they would rather look the other way.

The same is true in the dairy genetics marketplace.  Instead of addressing this issue, many in the industry would rather sweep it under the carpet and not discuss it.  Here at The Bullvine we have written many articles on marketing ethics (Read more:  Dairy Cattle Marketing Ethics – Do they exist?  and Business Ethics and Marketing Dairy Cattle Genetics), and for the most part the A.I. companies, those who make the most money from these practices, have decided to bury their heads in the sand, not wanting to buck the system.  That is because they are the ones making the most money from this and yet not the ones actually committing the crime.  Similar to how the owners of the baseball, hockey, soccer, and football teams are trying to pin the issue of drugs in professional sports solely on the athletes.  If they really wanted to clean up the game, they could do so, since they are the ones controlling the most important part in this equation.  The money.

Are we doing enough?

One of the big knocks on sports like Hockey and Football is that you never hear about any players actually being caught for the use of illegal drugs.  The same is true for the show ring.  You never hear about a cow failing a test, as we recently did in the beef industry (Read more: Stampede steer champion disqualified after drug test).  While some would tell you that is because there are none, those in the ring and the barns know that is not the case.  At least the shows are doing something.  What are the photography and seed stock industries doing?

The Bullvine Bottom Line

While certainly everyone loves to talk about what show cows are fixed and which ones are not, the bigger issue for me is that of the seed stock industry.  Yes genomics has helped eliminate some of the hothouse cattle but it certainly has not changed the way many of these top cattle are cared for (Read more: Preferential Treatment – The Bull Proof Killer) and how they are marketed.  So the answer to the drug question boils down to this. Until changes are made in these areas the dairy genetics industry will continue to have a problem!!!

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The whole world watched as Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he used EPO, human-growth hormone, testosterone and other drugs to help him win his 7 Tour de France titles.  Actually, many learned about his confession second hand since, not that many people get Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network.  The part that was really interesting is how Mr. Armstrong said he doesn’t consider himself to be a cheater.  He said he looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary and said the definition—to gain an unfair advantage—doesn’t describe his use of performance-enhancing drugs.  “So many other riders were also using them”, he said, that “the playing field was level”.  This got me to thinking, if leveling the playing field is what some of those in the show and high end genetics world consider that they are doing?

Much has been said about dairy cattle show ethics over the years (Read more – The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Dairy Cattle Show Ethics), as well as the ethics of those breeding and marketing top genetic animals (Read more – Business Ethics and Marketing Dairy Cattle and Has Genomics Knocked Out Hot House Herds?) and also  dairy cattle photography ethics (Read more – Dairy Cattle Photography: Ethics and Copyright and Has Photo Enhancement Gone Too Far?).  People feel very strong on both sides of this argument.  Others simply wish to enjoy cattle shows without having to think about the ethics, politics, economics (Read more – RF Goldwyn Hailey: Cash Cow or Cash Hog) and social issues.

Show Ethics and Major Sports They Have a Very Similar Past

The one thing that caught my attention was how for the most part show ethics have mirrored those of the cycling world as well as most other major North American pro sports.  Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey (yes we are Canadian so we have to acknowledge Hockey) as well as cycling have all gone through major transformation in their perspective on performance enhancing drugs.

At one time, using illegal drugs or doing unethical practices was seen as a necessary evil in order to compete at the top level.  As Armstrong says the need to take banned substances was like saying “we have to have air in our tires and we have to have water in our bottles.”  Well, in the show scene, at one time, it was pretty much the same.  For the most part in order to compete at the highest level (there are exceptions) you needed to push the limits in order to win the prize.

Villains or Lambs to the Slaughter?

Lance Armstrong is to cycling what Jose Canseco is to Baseball (Read more – The Big Bad Wolf of the Dairy Industry).  Both have been tagged as the poster child for their drug era.  Both sports want to put this dark time behind them.  The debate boils down to whether these two  are really the rare villain or are they  the greatest of their time who performed on the stage demanded  by the spectators  of that time?

It’s funny when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in pursuit of Roger Maris and his single season home run record, the world watched with great amazement.  Television broadcasts interrupted prime time shows to show a McGwire towering blast.  Previously, interruptions were restricted to an act of war or a Presidential address.  Similarly, everyone loved the great story of Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories.  But now as the full story comes to light everyone looks back and labels them as horrible people, as evidenced by the treatment of Armstrong in the media, and how both McGwire and Sosa were shunned in the recent Hall of Fame voting.

Have Things Really Changed?

The question now becomes “Has the cheating stopped?  Or are those being tested just one step ahead of the testers?”  There has been great debate in the media whether baseball and the other major sports are really clean, or have the users found new and better ways to elude detection.  In the case of Armstrong, there was regular testing at the time but he was able to elude detection.  It was not until recently that new tests were developed that they were able to confirm his use, since they had his blood samples on file (Something the major pro-sports have not started until recently).  This has me thinking, has the show ring and the genetics market really cleaned up their act?  Or are they just staying one-step ahead?

The Bullvine Bottom Line

In the 90’s and early twenty first century, drug use in sports was so endemic that the moral culpability of individual players who start taking steroids after the use is widespread is much more ambiguous.  Much like the dairy cattle show scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  I am sure there are those that will tell you it never happened.  There are also those who will try to tell you that the Apollo Moon landing was a hoax or that there really were UFO’s recovered at Roswell.  Even better, that the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) are controlled by the big A.I companies and they just want to beat the little guy down.  The major lesson is that you can’t waste your time pointing the finger at individuals but, instead, we need to keep working together to improve the industry as a whole.


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Let’s make something very clear from the start. This is not a discussion about the ethics of genetic tools to increase the rate of advancement. If you are not clear about our position on this, read the many articles on the benefits of genomics. This is a discussion of the almost daily decisions breeders have to make, when it comes to the promotion of their herd. They are faced with many tough decisions and often ethics comes into play. Breeders must choose between taking the high road at a perceived financial loss or taking the low road and becoming a perceived “winner.”

There is no question that, when it comes to promoting your genetics, ethics plays a huge role in how you do it. From getting cattle ready for the show ring or the classifier and feeling the pressure to make sure she looks her best, or sometimes even better than her best, to the ethics of photo manipulation. Many of these questions can shake you to your moral core.

Show Ethics

For years there has been great debate about what is acceptable and what is not. I can still remember as a young child watching a grown man whom at the time I had admired greatly (will remain nameless) threaten my father with physical harm, because Dad was enforcing the code of ethics at the Royal Winter Fair (part of his job at the time). It actually was a pretty scary moment for me. I was convinced it was going to come to punches. Knowing that this man was much larger than my father and that Dad has a pit-bull mentality, I was convinced it was going to get messy.

Everyone has the wants to win. There is no question about that. However, for some, the desire to win, and the perceived financial gain that comes with it can make them do things that you would never normally consider doing. Having worked on the “show circuit” I have heard the full range of justification for the actions that some (and I do say some as it is by far not all) are willing to take.

Just before ultrasounds were introduced into the Royal, many on the show circuit made comments similar to “They should just throw the rules out the window and let the best man win”. I have never forgotten that comment, or the person who made it. It was person who I have a very close friendship with and a great deal of respect for, but on this issue I could not DISAGREE more. Not for the reasons you may think. I disagree for the effect that it has on our ability to market cattle internationally. If all our cattle are perceived as fake then why would people want to buy progeny out of them? Since the chances of you getting an animal as good as what you’re seeing is, obviously, very unlikely.

Photo Ethics

Has Photo Enhancement Gone Too Far?This leads into another touchy subject that I set off the other day with our article “Has Photo Enhancement Gone Too Far?” but ties in to the same core issue. If buyers or potential buyers cannot be confident that the animal or genetics they will get is what they see, are you really winning? I am sure in the minds of those who make these changes they think they are doing the correct thing. Are they really? Are you really helping the breeder sell more? Or are you hurting the industry as a whole because you are causing some to distrust the legitimacy of the image? Yesterday at Ontario Spring Discovery, I had a talk with Patty Jones about this issue, a woman whose passion for dairy cattle is second to none. Patty has probably done as much for the marketing and promotion of cattle as anyone in the world. Moreover, (while not quoting Patty directly) there is no question (as there never is when it comes to Patty’s position on anything) that Patty sees the harm that those who have gone over the line are doing to the rest.

Am I saying that it is not possible that on that day they got a great shot? No. I have been there and had it happen. We use to kid that a cow had to look great twice in her life, once on classification day and once on photo day. Photographers like Patty are great at what they do. There is no question that when we call Patty to picture our cattle there is no question she will do her best to get the shot. However, she does so within her moral boundaries. That means yes, she will put shaving cream in the topline or make-up on the udder to make the veins stand out (much like a beautiful woman does before going out). But that is where she draws the line. She never puts veins that were not there, or “extends” their depth of rib or height of rear udder.

Even though we all know the technology is there to do so much more, Patty believes that it’s not worth the cost of her name. While it’s often been said that damn Patty got a great shot of that cow, it has never been at the expense of her ethics. It’s for that reason that people (myself included) have such respect for Patty.

Genetic Ethics

Has Genomics Knocked Out the Hot House Herds?As we pointed out in our article, “Has Genomics Knocked Out the Hot House Herds?” Genomics has greatly changed the ability or a breeder to affect how their cattle rank on the top indexes. Having said that, there are still many ethical debates that a breeder must face. I have seen very strong moral based breeders be pushed to their limits to achieve success. The need to provide for your family or win can be a very challenging choice indeed.

While you know that, they are pushing the limits, the number of excuses for why it is ok start to be many. For me it becomes a more a question of the system than certain players. For the most part these breeders know how the system works and are working within the system. Is the answer to punish these breeders for working the system? Alternatively, is there a need to adjust the system itself? Having grown up in a household where the system was talked about on a daily basis, there is no question that I believe the system can evolve and adjust to account for changes. Much like the NHL had to change, as the players got bigger, stronger, and faster, so does the proof system. Genomics takes a great step forward in this process, but there are also many other changes that can still be made.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

When it comes to marketing dairy cattle genetics, breeders face many ethical questions. This is no different from many other industries where the ethical position is changing. In the corporate world, there has been a huge trend to transparency and accountability. I think this is what we are starting to find a call for, when it comes to marketing dairy cattle. There is a huge potential for “new” money to come into the marketplace. Many breeders who were afraid to spend on top cattle because they were afraid to be “scammed” are now starting to look at it again. Genomics has done a great deal restore confidence to the market place. By being transparent and accountable, the potential profits far outweigh current levels. We see the amazing potential for well-informed breeders to breed and market great cattle. That is the reason why we started “The Bullvine”.

To get a copy of the Dairy Marketing Code of Conduct please click here.

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