Animal husbandry is one of the noblest professions on earth. But that doesn’t mean the public at large understands it, especially in relation to modern agriculture. As fewer and fewer people retain ties to farming, the communication gap grows — as does the influence of animal activists. So far, the dairy industry has been somewhat sheltered from the pressures that other species have faced. But that exemption is quickly coming to an end.

Consumers now question a lot of things that they didn’t question in the past, says dairy producer Deb Reinhart of New Holstein, Wis. “Many of the things and practices we’ve taken for granted now must be defended.” Or, at least explained.

Ballot initiatives in several states banning the use of veal crates, lawsuits by activist groups over calf housing and the refusal of a number of processors to accept milk from rbST-treated cows are just a few examples of how things have changed.

To confront these challenges, the dairy industry must create a culture of openness and transparency to retain consumer trust.

New communication model

Research from Dairy Management Inc., the dairy-checkoff organization, and other sources show that the vast majority of the public views dairy producers in a favorable light. So, why don’t consumers automatically assume that practices used by dairy producers are above reproach?

The rules of the game have fundamentally changed, says Charlie Arnot, president of CMA Consulting, LLC, a Kansas City-based consulting firm that manages the Center for Food Integrity.

“Fifty years ago, the public understood and accepted what we did,” he explains. Today, there is little understanding of livestock production and a lack of trust in practices used; producers no longer get the benefit of the doubt.

As a result, animal agriculture must learn to understand and answer questions of trust and values if it is to thrive in the future. This is a completely new way to share information.

For dairy producers, that means greater openness about who you are and what you do. “For example, producers need to engage their customers — processors, as well as consumers — to help them understand why you do certain practices,” says Arnot. Openness and transparency comes in many forms, from farm tours and school visits to verified and documented processes that record actions and activities so you can prove what you have or have not done.

It also means the industry must anticipate issues, like animal welfare, so it can define the issue. And develop strategies to help control the outcome, such as the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative. (For more information, go to: www.dairywellbeing.org)

Dairy representatives must shift away from providing strictly science- and financially based answers to consumer questions. People are not asking if you make money or if a practice on your dairy is scientifically valid. In the case of animal care, consumers ask “questions of the heart,” and producers often respond with hard data. Consumers view that as non-responsive and search for answers elsewhere. Or, even worse, they may interpret your response as though you do not care about animals, because you did not tell them that you do care.

“Science is critical, and we need more of it, but people need to relate to you as a person if they are to believe what you say,” says Candace Croney, animal science professor at OregonStateUniversity.

Connect value systems

Sociology offers an important clue for success.

Basically, people trust others who share similar values. And people trust people like themselves. So, when people ask you questions about your animals, they are really asking, “Are you like me? Do you hold the same values that I hold? Do you care for your animals?”

“When you look at the concerns people raise, like ‘how does it feel for the animal when you do blank?’ that’s a value judgment,” says Croney. “They are saying, ‘I want to make sure that animals are treated in a certain way. I want to be sure that you are doing right by them.’”

It doesn’t take much to satisfy this need and link with consumers’ values. It’s as easy as shifting your message from “I wouldn’t make any money if my animals weren’t well cared for” to “I do everything possible to give my animals the best quality-of-life possible.”

This message-modification makes you more relatable and connects you to the person asking the question about your operation. If you follow-up with samples of what you do, like comfortable stalls, heat abatement and other examples, that further cements the relationship and boosts trust. Don’t abandon science as the foundation of your practices. Simply use it to verify that you are doing the right thing instead of as the justification for what you do.

Closing the gap between stakeholder — in this case, consumer — expectations and industry performance builds credibility, enhances trust and fosters acceptance, says Arnot.

Keep it real

Fortunately, the dairy industry is in good shape to take advantage of this advice. According to recent consumer research conducted by Dairy Management Inc., 86 percent of consumers have a favorable opinion of dairy farmers.

However, you’ll only benefit from this status as long as you keep your individual message focused and truthful. All of your efforts are worthless if you can’t back up your claims.

“Again, be willing and open to share what you do on your dairy,” says Arnot. Begin building trust locally, and then link forces with state, regional and national associations to build critical mass for the industry.

At the end of the day, you run a business, and no business thrives on being disrespectful of (or ignoring) its customers, says Croney. At least engage consumers in a dialog. If you won’t, who will?

“We shouldn’t abandon science or apologize for making a profit,” says Arnot. But the industry must re-define itself as driven by principle and not driven just by profit. It means the industry must shift the debate, so it can play to win and stop playing not to lose.

Disconnect in action

The questions and comments posed to dairy producers at a state fair this summer were astonishing, from “why are dairy cows so bony?” to “why don’t some cows have tails?” Exhibitors fielded questions from young and old alike in seemingly greater numbers than in past years.

Two young families asked if they could purchase animals so they could supply their own milk. These individuals were well-intentioned, they were not activists, and they were most sincere in their desire to do the right thing for their families. But it was apparent that they had little faith in the current dairy industry.

These type of encounters, while welcome and encouraged, show a tremendous knowledge-gap. And, they demonstrate the informational opportunities the dairy industry is offered on a daily basis.

Who do consumers believe?

According to the Edleman 2006 annual Trust Barometer, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now the most trusted institutions in the United States and Europe. In 2002, both business and government ranked above NGOs in the United States. Business is beginning to rebound, but trust in government continues to fall. There also has been a marked decline in the trust of traditional authority figures.

In the U.S., a “person like me or a peer” is now the most credible source of information about a company, surpassing historical authority figures like doctors or academics, notes Charlie Arnot, president of CMA Consulting, LLC, a Kansas City-based consulting firm.

That means you are a more credible source than a government official, business executive or medical professional. Don’t waste this opportunity to stand up for your industry. Granted, your efforts will take time from your demanding schedule. But if you’re too busy to give consumers accurate information about your dairy, they may be too busy to buy your product.