At last month’s World Dairy Expo, we asked readers who stopped by our booth to list the top five challenges they expect to see on their dairies in the next three years. Many did take the time to thoughtfully write down their top challenges on a survey form. 

A few days after Expo, I read through the surveys and found that certain topics, such as availability of labor, manure management and transfer of ownership to the next generation, were prominently mentioned. However, what surprised me were the number of comments having to do with consumer concerns, including consumer misconceptions, public relations and consumers who want milk from cows that haven’t been treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). A producer from Clinton, Iowa, wrote, “1st BST gone, what’s next and how do we stop it?”   

Furthermore, I had a conversation at Expo with a bright, young veterinarian and corporate-affairs associate with one of the animal-health companies, and she, too, cited the rbST issue. In that same vein, she said getting consumers to accept the technology that’s being used on farms today is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Agriculture is the only industry that’s being asked to go back in time, she pointed out. Not only are some producers being asked to give up rbST — a technology that was approved in the early 1990s by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — but throughout agriculture we have seen assaults on growth promotants, genetically modified corn, antibiotics and other things.

That’s a fairly profound thought: While other industries are racing forward with new technology, agriculture is actually being asked to move backward, in some cases.

Agriculture is the “beneficiary” of this attention because of the strong interest that consumers have in their food source.

Consumers have every right to know how their food is produced. In the dairy industry, we have always taken the tack that consumers have a right-to-know, and some farms go out of their way to invite the public in for a closer look. The idea is to be totally open and “transparent” to the public in how we do business. This will become even more important in the future, as an article on page 34 of this month’s issue points out.

But there is a point where consumer conceptions or misconceptions can be an impediment. Consumers complain, on one hand, about higher milk prices, but fail to realize that by protesting the use of rbST they are contributing to higher milk prices by reducing supply. And, consumers who don’t know much about farming can be easily swayed by activist groups and their misleading propaganda.

First, we had the attack on rbST and, as the dairy producer from Clinton, Iowa, asks, “What’s next?”

We applaud those of you who have taken a proactive stance and started the educational process by showing the merits and safety of proven technology. Whether it’s rbST, reproductive-management products, antibiotics or other technologies, we need to be able to diffuse the propaganda of the activist groups and then reach out to retailers and consumers in an informed, confident manner.  (For starters, contact your local dairy-promotion organization or go to the Web site: www.dairyfarmingtoday.org)