Opportunities to add value to fresh liquid milk are relatively rare, but one new brand with potential – already becoming established in other parts of the world – is scheduled to hit the shelves in the UK in the summer of 2012.
With nothing added or taken away, a2 Milk differs from ‘conventional milk’ only in the type of beta-casein protein content. This variation, according to evidence from Australia and New Zealand, removes one potential cause of the milk intolerance that is believed to affect one in five Western consumers.
This being the case, a2 Milk – which will be launched in the UK through a joint venture operation between Robert Wiseman Dairies and A2 Corporation of New Zealand – not only promises to add value but also has the potential to grow the total market for fresh liquid milk.
The A2 beta-casein protein that is the key to this alternative milk is said to be the original milk protein, with A1 beta-casein protein being a natural genetic variation that developed thousands of years ago. Virtually all milk sold will contain A1 and A2 beta-casein protein, as herds will comprise a mixture of cows of varying genetic type as far as their beta-casein production is concerned.
It is estimated that through selective breeding alone it would take a herd approximately 10 years to establish the genetic status required to produce only A2 beta-casein protein milk. To achieve a faster conversion would require an aggressive culling strategy, or – for large enterprises with several herds – concentration of A2-producing cows at a single dedicated site.
According to Staffordshire dairy farmer Steve Cox, who has been considering the merits of conversion, he would need a price premium of around 5p/litre in order to adopt an accelerated conversion strategy – almost certainly more than will be on offer. However, he does see the merit in adopting a long term breeding strategy that will in time give his 480-cow pedigree Holstein Steveacre herd pure A2 status.
“We have to look at ways to differentiate our product and add value,” he says. “I really don’t know at this stage whether this alternative milk will take off and command a premium on the shelf in this country, but the evidence from other parts of the world is that it could – and it could mean more people are drinking milk.
“If I can breed a herd to produce A2 beta-casein protein milk at no cost or detriment to my normal activities, then I would see this as an advantage. It would certainly be a good thing to have the opportunity to sell higher value milk in the future, once the market is established.”
As a pedigree Holstein breeder, Steve Cox is also alive to the potential for his cows to be worth more in the future, if bred as A2 milk producing animals.
But what is involved in converting a herd and can it really be without detriment?
“A cow’s A1/A2 status is determined by a pair of genes for which there are two major alleles (or variants),” explains Emma Blanch from Bullsemen.com. “These are called the A1 and A2 beta-casein alleles and because a cow carries two copies of the beta-casein gene, she can carry either two copies of the A2 allele, one copy of each of the A1 and A2 alleles, or two copies of the A1 allele. The three states are referred to as being homozygous A2A2, heterozygous A1A2, or homozygous A1A1. As neither allele is dominant over the other, a cow must be A2A2 to produce pure A2 beta-casein milk.
“The distribution of A1 and A2 alleles throughout northern European black and white breeds is believed to be roughly 50/50, but this is only a generalisation and individual herds may vary from breed averages.
“A cow’s status can be ascertained using a DNA test, with the aim being to identify homozygous A2A2 dams to breed with homozygous A2A2 bulls.”
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Some of the leading cattle breeding companies are now testing bulls and in the UK Bullsemen.com is already actively marketing a wide selection of its bulls as homozygous A2A2. Amongst a list of 69 high ranking Holsteins, Bullsemen can list leading £PLI Oman sons Loydie and Logan (both available as sexed semen) and new genomic-tested sires Massey and Pair, as homozygous A2A2.
Steve Cox, who’s progressive and expanding pedigree herd averaging 10,800 litres/cow milk sold, certainly sees no lack of choice if restricting his bull selection to A2A2 only.
“We are breeding cows to last, with strong conformation, sound health traits and good fertility,” he says, “and always positive £PLI. Four out of the five leading bulls that I’m using currently are A2A2, with Jenny-Lou Marshall Toystory being a good example.
“We went through a similar breeding process with our Suffolk sheep, breeding for Scrapie resistance, and this took about 7-8 years. I see no real downside to the process with the dairy herd as there is such a wide choice of bulls with homozygous A2 status.”
The estimated cost of the DNA test required to establish a cow’s status is around £25, but for those involved on the a2 Milk project with Robert Wiseman Dairies and A2 Corporation this cost is covered by the processor. The joint venture companies are confirming that milk from pure A2 herds will definitely command a premium, though any further detail is currently confidential between prospective suppliers and the processor. Milk for the new a2 brand is to be processed at Wiseman’s Droitwich Spa facility. In Australia, a2 Milk sells off the shelves for two to three times the price of conventional milk.