You’ve seen it on the news or on social media. An activist group targets a local producer. If that’s what’s keeping you up at night, take a deep breath. Here’s help. First, says Miriam Martin, a graduate research assistant at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, producers need to confront their fears. (Read more about Martin’s work here.)
“I think welfare is a word producers have to stop being scared of. I think we use wellbeing instead of welfare a lot, and we tiptoe around it. But I think it’s because we just play scared around animal activists pretty often,” she says. “And I think the reality is we have to say OK, they’re here to hold us accountable. And if we’re doing the right thing and we’re telling our story they’re not a threat to us, because we’re the ones who have the good story at the end of the day.”
Martin, who grew up an ag kid on a farm showing pigs, says she was raised in a household where they were very defensive about public concerns. She says she heard all of the clichés growing up, from “we always try to do the right thing” and “we always make sure the animals are fed before we are,” and she wants fellow producers to know it’s OK to admit they aren’t perfect.
“I think that as an industry we have to be willing to say we don’t have everything figured out. We do have wellbeing issues we need to work on, and this is what we’re doing to fix them,” Martin says. “If we’re willing to start that conversation, I think activists become more interested in having a discussion with us. But more importantly the public does.”
Activists can play on a lot of emotion. So how do you overcome that? Martin says it’s about turning the conversation to the positives things that you’re doing to improve your operation. It’s easy to let activists dominate the conversation or answer their questions instead of telling what you want to tell.
“We also have to realize that activists have a lot of training, just from a PR perspective, and it’s hard for us to throw a producer in there who doesn’t have any training and expect them to be able to handle that situation well,” Martin says. “So I would encourage producers to get some of that training or to call someone who has that training, because we don’t want them to feel attacked, and then they get defensive and things go downhill in a hurry.”
Tell your story
People respond to real, individual people, Temple Grandin says, so a key effort for people in agriculture needs to be connecting with consumers. “Young consumers want to learn a lot more about their food. One of the problems we have today is a lot of young consumers are totally removed from the world of the practical,” Grandin says. “You know I’ve found when I take people through a large meat packing plant, most people are surprised that it’s just organized as is. That’s kind of the reaction most people have. They expect it to be chaos.”
Angela Baysinger, DVM, the animal welfare lead, for Merck North America, says it starts with efforts of people like Miriam.
“It’s just like what Miriam is doing, promoting good husbandry, promoting the health of the animal and getting out and talking to producers about how to tell their story about what they do, because what they do is animal welfare,” Baysinger says. “A little bit of it is helping producers advocate for their own livelihood, and at the same time helping them down the road, because everything evolves and everything changes. And that’s just a part of the transformation of every career path you can ever choose.”
Martin agrees that a key step will be helping producers embrace change. “It’s scary,” she admits, but she feels positive about the future, and she expects 50 years from now the industry will look much different. A good first step?
“Write down five things in the next year you’re going to try to do better for the wellbeing of their animals on your operation,” she says. “For example, improving handling facilities with low-cost upgrades that make it more efficient for you and less stress for the cattle. Or running the heifers through the facility once to just grain them at the end instead of running them through for the first time and smashing their head and giving them a bad experience.”
Welfare takes baby steps, she says. “Wellbeing is a big complex issue — it’s a whole lot of little things, like deciding we’re no longer going to raise our voice when we move cattle or we’re going to leave the dog at home because they stress out the cows, or leashing the dog so he doesn’t bite the heels of the cattle.”
Martin says it all goes back to stockmanship at the end of the day, as well as possessing cattle sense. And she points to the work of some of the best stockmen, like Curt Pate, who holds regular training clinics.
Pate, a well-known stockmanship trainer, and Ron Gill, Ph.D., a professor and extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M University, agree that the cattle industry as a whole needs to spend more time training workers. And even if you find a great stockman, Pate says that’s no guarantee their fit with the style of the rest of your team.
“Sometimes there are people who want to work with cattle and their timing just isn’t right. Or they overthink it instead of tuning into cattle,” Gill says.
At the end of the day, the industry needs more quiet, calm subdued cowboys who are already reading the animals and three steps ahead, Martin says, but that takes time, it’s hard to teach, and it requires a certain personality.
Pate sums it up this way: “Cattle work better when you’re in a good mood.”
Another good source for welfare insight: processing facilities. Martin says in her experience these facilities are very good about recognizing when people aren’t cut out for a certain job and moving them somewhere else. It’s a lesson Martin says we can apply on feed lots.
“If someone in the yard is struggling, instead of not passing our welfare audits because we’re getting too high of a prod score, we need to move this person somewhere else,” she says.
She also thinks we can improve the experience on feedlots by paying vaccination crews by the job instead of by the animal.
“The No. 1 issue I’ve seen in handling facilities at feedlots is they’re trying to go way too fast. So if we can just get those guys to slow down a little bit so every animal isn’t slipping as they go down the chute and isn’t wide eyed and scared, I think we can make a lot of progress of that animal being willing to go back to that facility again and not being afraid to do that,” Martin says.
These steps take intentional planning for improvement — they won’t change overnight without concerted efforts that include holding everyone accountable, from the plant holding suppliers to the truckers.
“If we’ve got bad weather conditions and you’re coming from South Dakota and you’ve got old cows on and you don’t have your truck completely blocked and there’s snow that’s coming in and they’re all walking off the truck and they’re covered in snow and ice, clearly we’ve got a pretty major issue there,” Martin says. “We’ve got to stand up and make the decision that this is not acceptable and this is what we’re going to do to make it better.”