You Can Get Milk From a Clone | Feature | Chicago Reader

You Can Get Milk From a Clone 

But will anyone want to drink it? A Wisconsin breeder is banking on it, and he's already replicating his beloved prizewinner.

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Every morning Blackrose II's udder is emptied into a bucket to ensure that her milk doesn't mix with milk from the other cows at Indianhead Holsteins. Theirs gets shipped to a cheese factory, but Bob Schauf, who owns the Barron, Wisconsin, breeding farm with his wife Karyn, uses Blackrose II's milk for his family and employees. The three-year-old cow gives up to 11 and a half gallons a day, more than they can drink, so he's forced to dump about half down the drain.

"It sure is a shame," he says. "There's nothing wrong with it. It's as good as any other milk. I mean, she's a cow. She's fed the same and produces milk by secretion through her udder. But there's a stigma, which is just stupid."

Actually Blackrose II is unlike any other cow Schauf owns. But she's exactly like a cow he used to own--a world-famous champion Holstein called Blackrose, one of the greatest cows that ever lived. "We could see her getting old," says Schauf, "and we wanted to preserve those genetics." Blackrose II is one of four cloned copies of the original.

A fly landed in Schauf's butter just a few months after Blackrose II was born, when the FDA called for a voluntary ban on the sale of milk and meat from clones and their offspring until the National Academy of Sciences could evaluate whether they were safe for human consumption. So he can't sell Blackrose II's milk, and he isn't sure what to do about the big red bull and the four heifers she's given birth to. "It's such a ridiculous thing," he says. "I wish I could bring those boys out here and just show them she's a real cow and explain to them how a clone is made. And then they'd say, 'Duh!'"

Schauf grew up on a dairy farm. He says he hated cows and escaped to college on his 18th birthday. But eventually he started studying breeding, and during an internship at a registered Holstein farm he discovered he liked the challenge of developing a bloodline. "It's a little bit like a sport," he says.

He was made manager of the farm and built the herd slowly, selling off two or three average cows to buy one special one. In the late 70s he bought the herd outright, and in 1981, when Karyn's grandfather died, the couple bought his farm and moved north to Barron.

They built a big barn and storage facilities, and Schauf continued to develop his herd, looking for cows with good pedigrees--proven histories of high milk production and longevity and the ability to pass those qualities on to later generations. Breeding good cows was more important to Schauf than selling milk. He entered his cows in competitions and made most of his money selling heifers and embryos and leasing bulls for semen.

He had about 250 head in the fall of 1992 when one of his employees and a partner bought a 17-month-old heifer at a sale and asked him to stable her. Stookey Elm Park Blackrose had a promising pedigree. Her sire, Blackstar, was one of the great bulls, Schauf says, and her dam, Speckles, was producing heifers that got high marks in competition. Of course not every cow takes after its parents. "A lot of good cowmen there passed her by," he says, "but she was a big, growthy heifer." Soon he noticed that Blackrose was developing into a cow that had everything going for her and asked the two owners if he could buy in. They formed a three-way partnership, Blackrose Futures Ltd.

Blackrose delivered her first calf that spring and another the next year, and she began producing milk in tremendous quantities. Schauf "flushed" her, treating her with a hormone that stimulates the production of multiple embryos. She gave 37 eggs in the first cycle--a generous number--and he began implanting them in surrogates.

Blackrose had a beautifully shaped frame, head, legs, feet, and udder--the kind of aesthetic qualities that win competitions. As a two-year-old she was undefeated in district and state competitions, and she won the top award at the Minnesota state fair, the World Dairy Expo in Madison, and the Royal Winter Fair in Alberta, Canada. As a five-year-old she was judged "excellent" by the national Holstein Association, scoring 96 points out of 100; she was just a tenth of a point away from 97, which only a handful of cows have ever achieved. Dairy people from all over the world came to visit her at Indianhead. "We had calls, calls, calls," says Schauf. "Everybody wanted something out of her."

As her fame grew, Blackrose proved she could transmit her good genes. Her first calf sold for $34,000, and breeders in Japan, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, and Canada bought others. Schauf began selling her embryos at premium prices and leased 12 of her bulls to artificial-insemination companies. Hundreds of thousands of units of semen were sold, spreading her influence all over the world; her first bull, Redmarker, is now dead, but they're still selling his semen. She also had a recessive gene that produced cows with red markings. "Years ago when you'd get a red one you'd shoot it," says Schauf, "because you didn't want anyone to know she had a recessive gene." But by then European breeders had decided they liked it.

Schauf gave Blackrose her own stall, and she was washed, groomed, and clipped more than the other cows. But fame didn't go to her head. She was endearing and easy to work with. She allowed the Schaufs' toddler to lead her around and enjoyed the apples her visitors offered. "She was like part of the family," he says.

But eventually Blackrose slowed down. She became less active, started getting crampy in her legs, and began producing fewer embryos. In 1996, after Dolly the sheep made her debut, Schauf began chatting with people from biotech firms that came to dairy shows, among them Infigen, a Wisconsin company that was developing a cloning method and wanted to clone animals with proven genetics. "I said, 'What would it cost to clone Blackrose?' and they looked at me and said, 'What is it worth?' I said, 'Well, it's worth quite a bit.'"

Schauf and his partners considered the possibilities for a few years. "It's a very expensive process, and you have to have an incredible cow to justify it," he says. But "this was a once-in-a-lifetime cow, the Michael Jordan of the Holstein world." Schauf, a practicing Christian, pondered the philosophical questions and concluded, "God gave man dominion over the animals."

In 1999 he agreed to pay $25,000 for the first clone produced, a price that would go down for subsequent copies. A tissue sample was taken from Blackrose's left ear, and the cells were cultured in a lab at Infigen. The nuclear material from the cells was injected into unfertilized eggs whose nuclei had been removed, and through a process called electrofusion the egg material was stimulated to combine with Blackrose's DNA.

When the process works the embryos begin dividing. They stay in test tubes for a week, then the best-looking ones are implanted in surrogates that are in heat. But the embryos don't always develop normally, and the cows don't always get pregnant. The process often has to be repeated over and over.

Months went by, and Schauf kept trying to reproduce Blackrose in more conventional ways. By 2000 she'd stopped ovulating, and he sent her to a breeding service in Alberta that would try to harvest any remaining eggs. While she was there she suffered a stroke and died at the ripe old age of 11.

When a farm cow passes on she's usually sent to a rendering plant, but Schauf thought Blackrose deserved better. "It was a real loss," he says. "We wanted to bring her back, but you couldn't bring a dead cow across the border. We even thought about stuffing her, but it was so expensive. She was buried at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, they said. Probably to make us feel better. Who knows what they did? Maybe she's dog food. We don't want to know."

Meanwhile at Infigen 18 surrogates had been impregnated with Blackrose's cloned embryos; 4 made it to term in early 2001. One of the calves, Blackrose V, was a bit small and sickly--Infigen says it was due to environmental factors--but the others seemed fine. "It was such an unbelievable resemblance," says Schauf. "You could see they were big, framey calves. It's hard to believe. I mean, there was no semen involved. You think, 'Wow, there she is again.'"

Schauf signed a contract with a Pennsylvania firm that was having a cloning "special" for $12,000, and it began developing a second cell line. But that summer the FDA announced its milk and meat ban.

Critics of cloning point to several potential problems. Their primary concern is that the high number of failed pregnancies and abnormal offspring that result from cloning might mean that cloned animals are unsafe for people to eat. They also say cloning could lead to a shrinking gene pool and raises a range of ethical and philosophical issues. Proponents of cloning dismiss such talk, saying healthy clones are the same as any ordinary cow and the critics are just afraid of technology. Besides, they say, breeders have been playing in the gene pool for thousands of years.

Schauf's cloned calves had been kept at Infigen for a few months, and when he went to pick them up he says he was told, "You can't sell the milk, but we're sure it's going to be approved." All he could do was breed them and hope the ban would be lifted. He called off the Pennsylvania firm's efforts.

Blackrose wasn't the first cow to be cloned, says Schauf, but she was surely one of the most famous. TV cameras showed up at the farm to film her clones when they arrived, and the local paper sent out a reporter. After the excitement died down his partners took two of the clones back to their own farms, and Schauf set about seeing if his two calves took after Blackrose.

From the road you can see a large white cross on the outside of Indianhead's big red barn. Inside the door hang photographs of Blackrose and other popular Indianhead cows, and Schauf's office walls are covered with plaques, trophies, and awards they've won. A large soft-focus poster of Blackrose and her most famous bull hangs behind his desk. "Redmarker and Blackrose," it reads. "Genetics for a new Millennium." Schauf says, "That's been my whole life--to breed something special."

Blackrose II had her first calf as a two-year-old last April, and since then she's been giving milk at about the same rate Blackrose did at that age--a little more than 3,200 gallons so far. "Craig drinks it," says Schauf, indicating one of his farmhands. "See how healthy he is?"

Schauf flushed her, and she produced 14 eggs, 4 of which were implanted in surrogates. They bore three heifers and a bull. He also began entering Blackrose II in competitions. Last year she won fourth place among two-year-olds at the Wisconsin Championship Show in Sheboygan--not the startling debut of Blackrose, but he says Blackrose didn't really peak until she was five.

He says Blackrose V, the sickly clone, has improved: "I think she's grown out of it." She's even given birth to a calf.

One of Blackrose II's heifers, Rubens Rose, is stabled with another young cow in the barn. Coloration is determined by the environment in the womb, but Rubens Rose has the same white blaze on her forehead as the natural fourth- and fifth-generation Blackrose progeny in the neighboring stalls. "Her influence," he says, "is gonna filtrate through this whole herd."

Lying in the last stall in the barn is Blackrose II's bull, Revenge. He staggers to his feet when Schauf approaches. Only a year old, he's so big he can look down on the breeder, and he's starting to get feisty. He plants his mammoth red head against Schauf's shoulder and pushes him off balance. "Hey you! Come on, Rose," he chides the bull, calling him by his dam's nickname and smacking him on the nose. Schauf could start sampling his semen, but he's not sure there's any point. "We could lease that bull--he could generate income for us," he says. "We all kind of anticipate that common sense will prevail and that eventually they're gonna OK this. And then we'll go on." Meanwhile Revenge's clock is ticking.

Last October the FDA announced a preliminary summary of the National Academy of Sciences report, saying it believed that food produced from healthy clones and their offspring is probably just as safe as that from nonclones. The ban wasn't lifted--the FDA's report has to go through a public-comment period, and then the agency will have to consider whether to label food produced from clones. "It leaves you kind of hanging," says Schauf. "I mean there's other cows out there I would consider cloning."

In the meantime, nothing in the FDA ban prevents Schauf from selling Blackrose II's embryos or offspring--as long as they don't enter the food supply. "We don't ask," he says. And no one's checking. Last May he held a sale to decrease his herd to give himself a break. Stardancer, a natural daughter of the first Blackrose, brought in $97,000. He sold one of her clone's heifers to a German man who was a fan of the original for $18,000.

Hundreds of clones are now scattered across the country--Infigen alone produced more than 300 cows, sheep, and pigs. Even Schauf's neighbor has a cloned cow. But the agricultural cloning business doesn't seem like a good investment right now. In March the New York Times reported that the British firm that cloned Dolly is nearly bankrupt. And Infigen, which had trouble with patent litigation and securing funding, laid off most of its staff in January.

In the milking barn Blackrose II lounges on the floor placidly munching hay. Schauf holds a picture of the two-year-old Blackrose and swats her clone's rear flank to get her to stand. "Just look at that," he says, pointing at her huge udder, then at the photo. "It's 100 percent that cow genotypically. The markings are a little bit different, but the size, the physical makeup--everything about her is Blackrose."

He shakes his head. "You almost gotta stop and think about it," he says. "Even when I talk about her I think, 'Her mother?' It's not her mother. 'Her sister?' No, it's her."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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