“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” ― 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

The cover of our November issue asks the question: Do modern facilities promote well-being?

Certainly, it is important for dairy producers to know the answer to this question. And, yes, based on research at the University of Wisconsin, cows in modern dairy facilities do perform well if properly managed. 

But, would the average consumer be impressed?

This week, while attending the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council annual meeting in Sacramento, Calif., I saw it from a new perspective.

Often, the messages that are sent out by those of us in agriculture regarding the safety of the food supply and the well-being of animals may be interpreted differently by consumers.

For example, we talk about the safety of the food supply. Yet, consumers may look at things like genetically modified foods and wonder if some of our methods tamper with nature. We talk about the high number of family-run farms, but consumers wonder if those family farms are beholden to large corporate entities.

We can talk about the business and science of dairy production, but consumers are mainly interested in the well-being of the cows.     

“What consumers expect, on average, is that we take good care of our cows,” Jen Walker, director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods, told those attending the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council meeting Thursday morning. 

While the cover story we ran this month about cows in modern facilities may be important for producers ― in a business sense, since it looks at milk production and health ― consumers need more proof.

How do we convince them?

One of the people in attendance at Thursday’s meeting ― a producer and veterinarian from Colorado ― mentioned the need for transparency. He has visitors come to the farm and is proud to show them what goes on there.

Telling people “this is what we do at our farm” is a powerful testimonial.

And, sure, it’s OK to tell them that the cows in free-stalls are able to get up and walk around when they want; that they spend much of the day either lying down or eating; that they have comfortable beds; that they are kept cool with fans and misters, and that a veterinarian makes regular visits.

Ultimately, you have to let people know that you take good care of the animals because it’s the right thing to do. Approach it from an ethical standpoint rather than basing it on business or science.

Doing the “right thing” for the cows means giving them a good life (and even a good death when their time has come), Walker pointed out.  

(Note: In addition to the excellent points made by Dean Foods' Jen Walker, I picked up some good points at a consumer-messaging workshop led by Stan Erwine, of Dairy Management Inc., and Mike Opperman, of Charleston Orwig.)