What image do consumers have of dairy farms?

The popular notion is still one of red barns and contented cows on green grass.  The people in New England have actively encouraged this image to boost their tourist industry. And, many such farms do exist throughout this country.

Does it bother consumers, then, when they see large dairies with free-stall barns and milking parlors? It shouldn’t, since the free-stalls and parlors are kept clean and comfortable in most cases. But, somewhere down deep — perhaps at the unconscious level — the free-stalls and milking parlors don’t quite jive with the storybook image of dairy cows. Instead of seeing Elsie, they see cow #1080.

We need to think about this for a minute.

For years, the dairy industry has benefited from the storybook image that people have of dairy farms. While some industries may have “factory farms,” dairy has been the happy exception. Right?

As public perception shifts from the small, 50-cow dairies to the large 2,000-cow dairies, our image may suffer. Farms will seem more impersonal. Some of the animal-handling practices that many of us take for granted will come under increased scrutiny. While tail docking is a convenience for many people who milk cows, someone who has never milked a cow may look at it as an unnecessary mutilation.

For decades, the dairy industry has received the benefit of the doubt. It’s the whole Carnation thing — “milk from contented cows.” It’s a public image that has served us well over the years. 

But as Bernard Rollin, faculty member at Colorado State University and an expert on the animal rights movement, pointed out recently to a dairy industry audience, “To take that (positive public) image and, in effect, pee on it by tail docking, you are your own worst enemies.”

Fewer and fewer people have a connection to the farm. Only about 1.5 percent of the nation’s population is now involved in production agriculture. The association most people have with animals is through a family pet. 

Increasingly, there is a disconnect between the public’s notion of how animals should be treated and farm reality. Fortunately, the dairy industry has few practices that would ever come into question. It doesn’t have a hot button similar to gestation crates in the swine industry.  

As Rollin pointed out in his talk, people who live off the farm don’t like to think that animal husbandry — especially the type employed by our grandparents prior to World War II — has been replaced by industrialization. It makes people more suspicious, less trusting of agriculture. 

We can dismiss the public as naïve or idealistic. But they are our customers. What they think does matter, because it influences their purchase decisions.

Remember, these people see things differently than we do. Ask yourself, “What would someone from Brooklyn, N.Y., think if he came out to my dairy?”