Ray Jackson and his family are dairy farmers in western Logan County looking to diversify their product with what may be a trend on the horizon for the industry — something called a2 milk.
“It’s daunting right now, but we’re excited for the possibilities down the road,” said Jackson, who is a sales rep for ABS Global, formerly American Breeders Service along with working on the small dairy farm.
Regular cow’s milk is about 85% water. The rest consists of lactose, fat, proteins, and more. About 30% of the total protein in that assembly is made up of beta-casein. Two variants of this protein are found in cow’s milk, a1 and a2. Cows are genetically predisposed to produce milk with either a1 or a2 proteins, though a new trend has recently raised the eyebrows of dairy farmers looking to cows that can produce a2 without any a1 beta-casein.
Like in nearly every sector of the food industry, consumer preference has permeated through the store shelves to influence production at the dairy farm level. Proponents of a2 milk stand by the claim that it not only helps with digestion of dairy products, but that it is actually suitable for lactose intolerant individuals to consume without issue. The claim is gaining steam and warrants taking a deeper look into the research behind it as well as the dairy farmers looking to capitalize on the possibly emerging market.
“The a1 and a2 proteins are naturally genetically occurring in cows,” Jackson said. “And of course like all traits there’s two genes for it so they can be homozygous a1, they can be heterozygous and have both genes, or they can be homozygous a2. The milk they produce is proportionate so they can actually make a blend of the two proteins or just one or the other.”
Perceived benefits for the consumer are leading the charge towards a2 milk in some markets.
“The benefits of it are still a little bit up in the air. There’s a lot of claims and there’s still lots of research left to be done, but it’s all involved in the health of people drinking that milk,” Jackson said. “The first claim you come across is digestibility and a lot people who think they’re lactose intolerant are actually intolerant to the a1 protein.”
Claims include a2 milk helping to protect against stroke and heart disease, and even go as far to say it can reduce the effects of autism. A number of recent nutritional studies have not ruled out the hypothesis of a2 milk helping digestion.
Jackson said the idea hit close to home for his family, part of the reason why they’re taking a look at producing a2 milk that’s non-homogenized.
“My daughter, who drank milk all of her life, went off to college and started drinking milk from a store then all of the sudden became lactose intolerant. We originally just attributed it to stress and more, but when she went off to Georgia she began drinking non-homogenized milk from a farm with a high probability of a2, a2, and she was fine,” he said.
Before, she always had milk from the farm. Jackson would later find out that his herd was also largely a2 homozygous.
“I noticed that all the bulls were being tested now for it and looking at the history and the pedigrees of the cattle we have, we had used a lot of those bulls in the past. So I started to research the ones most likely to be carry the homozygous a2, a2. We tested 30 head and 20 of those are homozygous,” he said.
The testing was just the beginning. The farm has positioned itself to enter the niche market of a2, non-homogenized milk, though they aren’t leaving the traditional milk world behind. Two bulk tanks have been set up to milk groups separately, one specifically for a2, a2 milk with the other containing the rest of the herd’s production.
“It’ll take us years to transition 100% over, and I think in the fledgling business of selling this milk, since maybe not everyone will be on with it right away, it’s going to be good that we have both kinds,” Jackson said.
The driving factors behind the change are a younger generation wanting to milk cows and less-than-favorable prices for traditional milk.
“We’re one of the last industries that hasn’t gone this corporate route where it’s either ownership from the processor or special situations where they pick their producer,” Jackson said. “I have to be proactive and if this is a route that people are going to take, the earlier we get in it, the better chance we have of getting the market set up.
“Transitions will be simpler with a small dairy where there’s in-depth knowledge and a greater focus on pedigrees.”
While it takes a fair amount of work, the transition isn’t all that difficult from the breeding side.
“Every bull book has beta-casein testing,” he said. “To do a transition, you need to separate cows, you need to have separate tanks, but any farm could do it because there are plenty of bulls available out there. The genetic incidence is not that low. If I were to eliminate all the bulls that aren’t homozygous a2, I still got a third of the bull book available to me. So you’re not having to give up a bunch of genetics quality wise, and other traits, to get this. Not like the polled gene or red hair color — you name it — those are lower incidence where if you want go for that, you have to sacrifice in production, profit, longevity, foot and leg, and udders. This is not the case with a2 genetics.”
A further look into the breeding side of the beta-casein finds an interesting world, especially in breed probability.
“The Guernsey breed, to my knowledge, is the one that has the most,” Jackson said with regard to a2 likelihood. “The problem is there’s hardly any of them left. Holsteins are not as high as a Swiss or a Jersey, which are the next two most prevalent breeds.”
Though his farm is mostly Holstein, breed probability doesn’t make much of a difference with the high percentage of their herd already a2.
“Now that we have some cows tested, as long as we breed them to a2, a2 homozygous bulls, we don’t even have to test the daughters because they have no chance of being anything but homozygous,” he said.
It sounds simple, and while the breeding may be, the future of the niche market and the benefits of the product remain uncertain, especially without “smoking gun research,” according to Maurice Eastridge with the Ohio State University Department of Animal Science.
“I don’t think there’s been adequate research. Therein lies the problem,” Eastridge said.
Eastridge said the a2 idea appeared in Europe several years ago and that what the health claims need is solid research. In the meantime, he urges caution towards the trend.
“It’s one that’s been a big challenge. There are commercial labs out there that are testing for a2 milk. The science behind the human health side of it is unknown, and I don’t know why these claims on lactose intolerance relate,” Eastridge said, noting that a1 and a2 deal with the protein side of milk, not
the lactose. “But there are some aspects to allergies of milk that are related to the proteins. Specifically digestion related to the protein, possibly because it is a casing protein.”
Jackson expressed the same sentiment, acknowledging the uncertain nature of the trend. That’s why the family is keeping their regular milk rotation going as well as focusing on a non-homogenized final product where a market is more established.
Eastridge also noted that now is the time for looking at what can be changed in dairy production, especially since smaller farms are better positioned to handle rapid change.
“We always caution producers on these things, but credit to farmers who are trying to find a niche for specific markets,” Eastridge said.
An ongoing challenge for the dairy industry is making changes to the makeup of milk whether that is more or less fat or different vitamins, Eastridge said. But since the a1, a2 milk idea is based on genetics and not the cow it’s more black and white.
“Being able to consistently supply milk the targeted concentrations of particles is important,” he said. “Being more of a genetic based trait than feeding based, where a change can be made through breeding and is therefore more precise, that makes it easier to control.”
The entire move towards different production of milk is with the consumer in mind, after all. Today’s consumer is more concerned about their food than ever before.
“It’s informative that people are looking at the background of the product they’re using,” Eastridge said.
Some consumer protection sites online noted that as the trend toward a2 milk becomes more ubiquitous, more misleading labels come to market. “This product contains a2 milk” can already be seen
on packaging in Australia, and in some parts of the U.S.
As it stands, industry leaders, nutrition experts, and dairy farmers all seem to agree that more research is needed on the subject. The claims and preliminary studies are intriguing enough to keep this latest trend in food production from being swept under the rug, though, for the time being.
“I’m going to know a lot more about this business in a year,” Jackson said. “But right now, I’m just going into it with eyes wide open and trying to learn as we go.”