We used to think that one of the major proteins in milk, casein (p. 19), was mainly a nutritional reservoir of amino acids with which the infant builds its own body. But this protein now appears to be a complex, subtle orchestrator of the infant’s metabolism. When it’s digested, its long amino acid chains are first broken down into smaller fragments, or peptides.
It turns out that many hormones and drugs are also peptides, and a number of casein peptides do affect the body in hormone-like ways. One reduces breathing and heart rates, another triggers insulin release into the blood, and a third stimulates the scavenging activity of white blood cells. Do the peptides from cow’s milk affect the metabolism of human children or adults in significant ways?
We don’t yet know. Milk is food for the newborn, and so dairy animals must give birth before they will produce significant quantities of milk. The mammary glands are activated by changes in the balance of hormones toward the end of pregnancy, and are stimulated to continue secreting milk by regular removal of milk from the gland.
The optimum sequence for milk production is to breed the cow again 90 days after it calves, milk it for 10 months, and let it go dry for the two months before the next calving. In intensive operations, cows aren’t allowed to waste energy on grazing in variable pastures; they’re given hay or silage (whole corn or other plants, partly dried and then preserved by fermentation in airtight silos) in confined lots, and are milked only during their two or three most productive years.
The combination of breeding and optimal feed formulation has led to peranimal yields of a hundred pounds or 15 gallons/58 liters per day, though the American average is about half that.