America’s dairy farmers have continued to dwindle as the economics of the industry fail to support smaller operations. The USDA’s latest data shows that since 2003, the U.S. has lost more than half of its licensed dairy operations, which now stand at just under 32,000. The last three years have seen larger year-over-year declines than at any other point in the past decade, reflecting not just fallout from the pandemic but also years of depressed milk prices. Dairy farmers that are looking to stay in the game are increasingly turning to “value-added” products which command a premium over conventional dairy. One option that I’ve been hearing more about is A2 milk, which is produced by cows with a natural genetic variation.
All milk contains proteins, of which about 80% are what is called caseins. There are four categories of casein in cow’s milk, alpha – which has two subtypes – as well as beta and kappa. Whey makes up most of the rest of cow’s milk protein. All proteins in cow’s milk have genetic variations. Beta-casein has a dozen genetic variants, including what are known as A1 and A2 mutations. A2 milk comes from cows that only have the A2 mutation. This type of milk was initially brought to market by the Australian-based A2 Milk Company and is sold mostly in Australia, New Zealand and China. From what I understand, all Australian school children receive A2 milk.
Back in 2016, a small study (only 45 participants and funded by The A2 Milk Company) found that it may take some people significantly longer to digest milk that contains both the A1 and A2 protein than milk that only contains A2. In turn, they theorized that the decrease in digestion speed could lead to gastrointestinal inflammation and symptoms like gas and abdominal pain. They further suggest that it is A1 rather than lactose that causes most of the digestion problems that many people experience from dairy. Other similarly small studies back up this theory to some extent but the hard science is far from definitive. Two long-term studies are currently underway in the United States on digestibility differences between A2 and A1 milk, with results expected in 2023.
Regardless of what the science shows, the popularity of A2 milk among consumers as a possible solution for dairy-related digestive discomfort has been on the rise. In fact, Costco and many other major retailers have even launched their own private label A2 milk products. Swiss milk product giant Nestlé is actually rumored to be eyeing a takeover of The A2 Milk Company. Dairy industry experts are cautiously hopeful that A2 milk could help build a sort of “designer milk” market, breeding new life into the industry along with things like milk from grass-fed cows or the new “protein added” varieties. Interestingly, the price point of most A2 milk tends to fall between lower-priced traditional milk and premium-priced organic brands.
The only way to have a herd that produces A2 milk is through genetic selection. For a cow to produce true A2 milk, the cow must have two copies of the A2 gene in its DNA. Different breeds of dairy cows are more or less likely to carry the A2 gene, and the demand for the gene has increased the sire availability across breeds, according to Chad Debow, associate professor of dairy cow genetics at Penn State University. Using A2/A2 sires and breeding only A1/A2 cows is the fastest way to convert the herd to fully A2/A2 genetics, he tells the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA). You can use A1/A1 cows, but the process of transitioning the herd will take longer, as there is no chance of a calf obtaining an A2 gene from an A1/A1 mother cow. You will always get an A2/A1 calf from this pairing, rather than having a 50-50 chance of an A2/A2 calf from the initial breeding.
Approximately 80% of Guernsey cows have A2A2 genetics and it is reported that all Guernsey bulls sold by artificial insemination (AI) companies are A2A2. Debow estimates that Jerseys are now at 85% A2A2 genetics, while Norwegian Reds and Brown Swiss breeds are both well above 50%. And a majority of Holstein’s sires are now A2A2, with less than 10% A1A1 sires being used by AI companies. Of course, the only way to really know for sure is via a genetic test. Some companies offer A2 testing as an add-on to a full genomic test, while some do offer it as a stand-alone test.
Dairy experts mostly seem to agree that there is not really any harm in opting for A2 cow genetics outside the typical downside to genetic filters – every time you add one, it further limits the genetic progress you can make in your herd. If premiums are to be had for producing A2 milk, it most likely makes sense to make the shift. But they also warn that “chasing the premium” is a bad idea as there is no guarantee that A2 milk will be more than a passing fad. (Sources: NODPA, Food Navigator, Progressive Dairy)