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The Milk House: Jurassic Park farming

Ryan Dennis Published on 24 February 2015

“God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers,” exclaims Dr. Ian Malcom, staring at the recreated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. It turns out, Spielberg might be a prophet.

In 2009, Derek Gow, a farmer from Devon, England, imported 13 Heck cattle to graze on his farm. Extremely dangerous and with little commercial value, Heck cattle are the result of a Nazi-sponsored genetic program meant to create an exceptionally aggressive “super cow” that was the re-generation of extinct aurochs that originally roamed the woods of Europe. Aurochs, the species all modern cattle descend from, went extinct in 1627.

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Between the two World Wars, German brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, directors of the Munich and Berlin national zoos, respectively, sought to bring back the aurochs. In what sounds much like Jurassic Park ideology, they believed a species is never truly extinct as long as its genes have survived in its descendants.

The project soon garnered the support of the Nazi regime. The brothers would selectively breed at least eight ancestral breeds together from around the world, including Brown Swiss and Spanish Fighting Cattle, until a bull was born in 1932 they believed resembled the aurochs.

Currently, there are least a handful of projects that seek to take advantage of genomic editing and samples of ancient DNA to construct offspring that are even closer replicas to the original species.

A reminder of an ugly past, most Heck cattle were slaughtered after the fall of the Nazi regime, but an estimated 2,000 remain in various zoos, conservation parks and nature reserves. Derek Gow made headlines bringing them into England and eventually bred his herd to 20 head.

He was recently in the news again, having to sell all but six animals because they were too aggressive. Gow claims that they would “try to kill anyone” if they had the chance. The only way they got them onto the trailer was by placing a “young, athletic man” in front of the door who was able to jump out of the way when they lunged.

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The re-creation of the aurochs is encompassed by the larger canopy of the de-extinction debate. While it is too late to bring back the dinosaurs, it has been widely accepted that we now have the technology to genetically engineer hundreds of other disappeared species, from the passenger pigeon to the woolly mammoth. As long as a DNA sample remains in the bones of a museum exhibit somewhere, a species can be classified as “bodily, but not genetically extinct.”

The general process involves assembling the complete genome of the extinct species and comparing it to a close living relative, identifying the genes responsible for the differences, swapping the key pieces of DNA in the stem cells of embryos and mating that resultant generation.

The advancement of science has created a very Spielberg-like air over the struggle to maintain biodiversity – and like in any good drama, it comes with the complication of morality.

Opponents liken de-extinction to playing God while advocates suggest that humans have already done so in driving the animals to extermination.

Those in favor cite the opportunity to restore diminished ecosystems by reintroducing keystone species once absent and how such efforts will advance the science of preventing further extinction. Some fear that the habitats of disappeared species have already changed too much and that more focus should be spent on saving endangered species.

One would be remiss to overlook the irony that the Nazis had once sought to improve the world through genetic manipulation and that we’re back to the same notion again. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the brave new world it has become when, in all likelihood, we’ll be able to go to a zoo in several decades to see a woolly mammoth or a dodo bird.

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The vision of the future becomes more exciting – if not murkier at the same time. As preceding generations become more comfortable with the concept and attitudes change, who’s to say farmers won’t eventually be milking genomically constructed cattle that originated from a laboratory? Our freestalls may very well be filled with long-lasting, low-maintenance “super cows” that milk 10 times as much as Holsteins.

After all, it’s not that long ago we thought Jurassic Park was only a movie. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

ryan dennis

Ryan Dennis
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