The brutal summer of 2011 reduced crop yields, contributed to livestock death losses and provided new ammunition for animal rights activists to use in calling for an end to modern livestock production.
Thousands of livestock died this year during one of the hottest summers on record, and many of the deaths occurred in livestock confinement operations – poultry houses, hog facilities and cattle feedlots. In a front-page story in Monday’s Kansas City Star, Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection with the Humane Society of the United States, was quoted as describing the livestock deaths, “Horrible. It is just an unimaginable way to die.”
Agreed. And Karen Dillon, The Star reporter who wrote the story, interviewed several livestock producers and a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau who described how producers went to great lengths to prevent the livestock losses. But with some locations experiencing 70 percent humidity, temperatures around 100 degrees F and no wind, livestock losses became inevitable.
Several news reports about livestock deaths due to the heat were reported last summer, although none claimed that animal abuse was to blame. Which begs the question; why is this story relevant now, weeks after the scorching weather has abated? The answer, of course, is that a vocal minority believe that raising food animals is abuse, regardless whether the animals suffer in the heat or the cold.
Mass livestock deaths are rare and they tend to be isolated events, though when mass deaths occur they make news. Yet, Dillon casts a shadow of doubt over the issue with her readers. “It’s difficult to know how many livestock have died this year or in previous years,” she wrote. “Most states don’t require growers to report livestock deaths even when the numbers are large.”
Is that a suggestion that a death certificate be issued for each animal?
Overall, Dillon’s story was balanced with arguments from both sides. South Dakota’s state veterinarian, Dustin Oedekoven, described for Dillon how feedlot employees worked to provide cattle some relief in the face of the heat.
Oedekoven told Dillon that feedlot employees put straw in the pens to try to create some insulation between the hot ground and the cattle. They put up temporary shade. Windbreaks and wind barriers were taken down so that any breeze might get to the cattle. Sprinklers were used and even firetrucks were brought in to wet the cattle down in the pens. “…people were trying anything,” Oedekoven said.
No, the question for the livestock industries is not whether Dillon’s story was fair. The question is why was this a story at all, and why now?
“Livestock endured mass death in the heat,” screamed the headline on page one above the fold. The lead describes how half the hogs in a 5,000-head facility died during a power outage this summer. And the first person quoted in the story is HSUS’s Shapiro.
Sure, the balanced part got in the story, too – the part about farmers going to great lengths to save their stock – on page 6. Dillon also repeatedly refers to livestock operations as “factory farms.”
So, Dillon’s story about livestock deaths due to heat this summer was accurate and balanced.
But the same story with this headline “Livestock producers worked hard to save their animals during summer’s heat” is just as accurate.
Indeed, they’re both true and accurate. Unfortunately, the positive spin is just boring.
“An unimaginable way to die.” Now that’s a page-one quote!