Opponents of excess government meddling in the private market often argue that it puts government policymakers in an inherently unfair position: that of picking winners and losers. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson gives us an excellent example: he’s working to raise milk prices, leaving dairy farmers the winners while everyone who consumers dairy products winds up losing. Also winning: steak lovers, who will see lots more beef on the market. Also losing: the cows.

A stimulus package may be a lifeline for the nation’s economy, but it could be a death sentence for a lot of cows.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to use the forthcoming stimulus bill to help dairy farmers, and the number one priority is to dampen milk supplies and prop up prices. Translation: reduce the nation’s dairy herd…

Taking milk cows out of production as a way to control milk prices is a controversial approach. The federal government tried that in the 1980s through the whole herd buyout program, and while the policy worked for a time, milk production eventually bounced back and farmers were once again grappling with low milk prices…

The National Milk Producers Federation, representing bargaining cooperatives for dairy farmers, already has a herd retirement program that is not publicly funded. The so-called Cooperatives Working Together program has paid farmers since 2003 to retire cows. In 2007, the program helped take 52,783 cows out of production.

Mr. Peterson said he asked the NMPF if it could use stimulus money to speed up the CWT program.

So far the answer is no; Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has given the cows a reprieve (for now anyway). But you can bet that advocates of a cowacaust will keep trying. After all, it’s just the sort of thing that makes sense for a stimulus package. Because if increasing the price of every gallon of milk, every pint of ice cream, every slice of cheese, and every stick of butter in the country isn’t a great way to get the economy moving again… well, you might as well not have a Congress at all.