Udder Beauty

Ensuring that dairy queens are selected for their natural splendor

The scourge of udder tampering has not escaped the attention of humorist Dave Barry. In one of his columns, he laments unscrupulous dairy farmers who inject foreign udder-enhancing substances into their animals’ mammary glands in a desperate bid for a competitive edge at livestock shows. Barry likens these competitions to human beauty pageants, except that the cows get no credit at all for being smart or having nice personalities.

DAIRY VALUE. At competitions, judging focuses on the udder, the business end of the cow. J. Miller/UW–Madison Communications
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. Robert T. O’Brien demonstrates the ultrasound scanning that is being phased in this year at many dairy competitions. J. Miller/UW–Madison Communications
This ultrasound image of an udder inspected by University of Wisconsin veterinarians shows normal tissue with no sign of injected substances. O’Brien/UW–Madison
This udder image reveals injected gas that’s probably isobutane. Note the black vertical streaks, called shadowing, among the white bubbles deep in the udder. As a result of screening for this form of tampering, gas injections appear to be rare at current dairy competitions in the United States. O’Brien/UW–Madison
More common today than gas injections are infusions of a liquid called “mild silver protein” to swell a cow’s udder. Telltale signs show up as alternating black and white bands near the top of this image. O’Brien/UW–Madison

Alas, udder fraud is no laughing matter to people who make their living raising and marketing Holsteins and other dairy breeds. Because grand champions and their progeny command a high price, “there’s a lot of money at stake,” notes David Kendall, executive secretary of the Brown Swiss Association in Beloit, Wis.

Forty percent of a cow’s score in the showring traces to the shape, size, and feel of her udder. The judging values no other part of the body as highly. The reasoning is simple: In dairying, Kendall explains, “that’s where we make or lose our money.” This focus invites fraud, and many of the perpetrators are good at evading detection.

About 5 years ago, concerned that the rumored pervasiveness of this problem was beginning to scare away honest competitors, dairy associations began recruiting veterinary experts to develop fraud-busting tactics.

Veterinary radiologist Robert T. O’Brien of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is one of those who entered the fray. “We had published an article describing the appearance of diseases in the udder as viewed by ultrasound,” he notes. When a colleague in the veterinary school read the article in 1998, he popped into O’Brien’s office and asked him for a consult on the possibility of screening show animals for evidence of injected gas in their udders. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” O’Brien says. “Now, we’ve become the infamous udder-ultrasound dudes.”

He and his colleagues found that ultrasound examination could reveal fraud at shows. After putting the technique to work in Wisconsin, they’ve now begun training a cadre of veterinarians around the world to test for fraud.

Under O’Brien’s team’s aegis, the Brown Swiss Association will this year institute mandatory udder screening for all champions in its five national competitions–beginning with the All American Dairy Show, Sept. 26, in Harrisburg, Pa. Holstein Association USA of Brattleboro, Vt., the world’s largest dairy-breed group, is considering a similar screening requirement for all national champions in the 11 shows it sponsors.

As with drug testing of Olympic athletes, O’Brien says, screening of udders will probably become a permanent fixture of dairy competitions. Since a major Wisconsin fair began ultrasound tests of its winners 4 years ago, he says, the incidence of cheating has fallen dramatically–although new tricks emerge all the time.

“We never get ahead,” O’Brien says, “but we do try to keep up.”

Big bucks

In dairy shows, the champion usually gets a purple ribbon and its owner takes home a $50 to $100 check. Such “pocket change” will cover only a fraction of what it costs to get an animal to the show and pay for a family’s several-day stay, notes Peter Cole of Holstein Association USA. The real financial benefit comes from marketing a champion or its offspring, he says.

Some people enjoy owning a cow that’s recognized for its superior appearance, and they’ll pay up to $600,000 for it, Kendall says. These animals are “living, breathing pieces of art, like dogs or any other exhibited species,” he argues.

However, he adds, as with dogs, “selling offspring is where you make the most money.” How much you can get for offspring of “dairy queens,” depends on the superiority suggested by the parent having won contests, Kendall says.

Consider the market for cow embryos. Farmers administer fertility drugs to prize cows and then artificially inseminate them. A week later, experts flush out fertilized embryos and freeze them until they’re sold for implantation in surrogate mothers.

“Cows that are extremely good flushers produce 35 to 40 embryos at one time,” Kendall says. Each embryo from a ribbon-winning cow can yield a farmer $5,000 or more. However, if an embryo comes from an animal that won a championship through fraud, Kendall says, “you may be buying a bogus genetic package because the quality of the [parent] is not as good as was represented.”

That’s one reason Ohio passed its Livestock Show Reform Act in 1995. It was the first law to make livestock tampering a felony, Kendall says. The state spends $150,000 to $200,000 a year on testing and investigations.

Indeed, boasts Fred L. Dailey, Ohio’s director of agriculture in Reynoldsburg, his investigations under this law have sent several people to prison. Additional scofflaws have had to buy full-page advertisements in national livestock magazines showing their pictures along with an acknowledgment that they cheated.

Many have also been sentenced to community service and banned from competing for several years.

Gas ‘er up?

The practice of sprucing up animals is part and parcel of showmanship. No one begrudges a farmer or 4-H youth wanting to make a cow look its best. Groomers will wash an animal and trim its hairs so that judges get a good look at the cow’s ribs, withers, and hips. Some groomers rub talcum powder into stains on a white animal or shoe polish onto her hooves to make them shiny black.

Such preening is allowed. Administering drugs, such as steroids, or giving injections is not. That’s why analysis of urine has become routine at big fairs.

But only some forms of tampering are evident in urine samples. Injections of gas into the udder, for example, aren’t.

Until 2000, cheats frequently injected into the udders of perfectly healthy show cows an antibiotic drug for mastitis, a condition in which milk ducts become inflamed. The antibiotic’s delivery system relies on a propellant–isobutane, the fuel in cigarette lighters–that can subtly alter an udder’s contours.

One spritz and a quadrant of the udder that might have been a tad small, somewhat misshapen, or asymmetrical, can be cosmetically corrected. Urine tests don’t reveal that drug.

O’Brien’s studies have now shown that even radiological clues to such primping with compressed gas are gone within 72 hours. But in an ultrasound scan conducted immediately following the ribbon ceremony, the doctoring showed up as distinctive black streaks penetrating from just below the skin down to bubble-shaped patterns deep within the tissue (see“What the vet sees,” below).

O’Brien found that in the first years of experimental udder scans–before judges began booting crooks from the showring–the incidence of injected gas was between 30 and 40 percent among the top-judged cows.

No sooner did he publish analyses showing how to diagnose this tampering than did the incidence of such knavery drop to a mere 5 percent–at least in shows that had advertised the Wisconsin team would be screening winners. In fact, O’Brien observes, “we hadn’t seen a single case since 2000–until this April, when we stumbled on a lone instance.” Some people performing the scans “didn’t even recognize [the telltale pattern],” he says, “because it had been so long since we’d seen it.”

Which reinforces, he says, the need for vigilance.

The current rarity of gas injections doesn’t mean cheating has ended. Scoundrels have embraced a newer trick: injection of so-called mild silver protein. This liquid concoction–a purported remedy for infections that is widely available over the Internet–triggers a localized inflammation that induces swelling. By targeting the size of injections, their number, and their placement, a cow’s owner can subtly reshape an udder.

O’Brien and his radiology colleagues have had their eye on this development. In tests, they injected the silver formulation at 17 sites in a half-dozen lactating cows, imaged each animal’s udder with ultrasound, and then asked an outside expert to pinpoint signs of the treatment on sonograms. In the Aug. 1, 2002 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, O’Brien’s group reported that every injection site had been found, with no false positives. The irritant caused an unusual “corrugated appearance,” the researchers note, that showed up on the ultrasound images as alternating white and black bands (see“What the vet sees,” below).

In a subsequent test, O’Brien established that this diagnostic pattern generally persists for nearly 5 days but can last up to 16.

Injecting saline is an older trick for pumping up udders. “We wouldn’t be able to pick it up on ultrasound,” O’Brien says. So, he emphasizes, livestock shows need to employ several types of tests. For instance, saline injections show up as reductions in glucose concentrations in milk.

To screen for such manipulations in major Ohio championships, “after each dairy show, we’ll milk out each quarter [of a champion’s udder] and test that milk,” notes Dailey.

Steer clear of these

Fraud in livestock competitions isn’t limited to well-endowed cows. The stakes are especially high in steer contests, where an auction of the winning animal often immediately follows the judging. The high bidder writes a check for up to $75,000 to the farmer or a 4-H teenager who raised the animal, and then the buyer dispatches the prized purchase to a butcher. Traditionally, premium bids have been a vehicle for providing farm kids with college funds.

Nine years ago at the Ohio State Fair, 7 of the top 10 class-champion steers–animals from which the grand champion and its runner-up were chosen–showed evidence of tampering. The first clue? “A state meat inspector noticed some oil dripping out of a [slaughtered] steer–and it was not animal oil,” Dailey recalls.

Carcass examinations showed that most of those champions had been injected with vegetable oil to improve the appearance of their musculature or received clenbuterol, an asthma medicine that in livestock improves the conversion of feed into muscle instead of fat.

In other instances, judges have found evidence of surgery in beef cattle to pare down muscle in the “brisket” region, or upper chest, to give them what Dailey describes as “a cleaner front end.” When asked about telltale scarring, he says, the owners will claim that the cow got caught in a barbed wire fence.

Hog farmers apparently resort to yet other deceitful tactics. “Right now,” Dailey says, “I’m handling a case where testicular tissue was found in a barrow”–a supposedly castrated hog. “That may not sound too serious,” he says, “but it’s a big advantage for it to have male hormone.” It helps the animal bulk up on muscle.

When the first case turned up a few years back, judges suspected it was a rare, natural instance where one testis failed to descend from the abdomen. “But the next year,” Dailey says, “we had 3 of these in the top 10 animals.” It’s now clear, he says, that “sometimes people perform operations on the animals to push [the testes] back into the body cavity.”

Other illegal tricks include: ice enemas to make a sheep’s muscles contract, temporarily producing firmer loins; beating a sheep or steer in select areas to create swelling that improves the body’s contours; or bleeding a steer and storing its blood for later reinjection into muscles as a way to make them look beefier. Some exhibitors have even been caught snaking a hose down their steer’s mouth right before showing, to give the animal the appearance of more weight gain.

Unlike dairy winners, other livestock champions usually go directly to slaughter.

In Ohio, “As soon as a judge slaps an animal on the butt and says he’s the champion, our people are out with collection cups to take urine,” Dailey says.

“We maintain a chain of custody on those samples and the animal itself–to the packing plant.” There, meat inspectors have an opportunity to probe the entire animal–and stretch the hide to look for signs of an injection. Some veterinary researchers are developing biochemical assays to detect more subtle signs of tampering.

Dailey and O’Brien both see a never-ending challenge in sleuthing out the dirty tricks.


What the vet sees


O’Brien/UW–Madison

This ultrasound image of an udder inspected by University of Wisconsin veterinarians shows normal tissue with no sign of injected substances.


O’Brien/UW–Madison

This udder image reveals injected gas that’s probably isobutane. Note the black vertical streaks, called shadowing, among the white bubbles deep in the udder. As a result of screening for this form of tampering, gas injections appear to be rare at current dairy competitions in the United States.


O’Brien/UW–Madison

More common today than gas injections are infusions of a liquid called “mild silver protein” to swell a cow’s udder. Telltale signs show up as alternating black and white bands near the top of this image.

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Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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