You don’t need to listen to many ads from fast food chains before coming to the realization that some companies like to carve out market share by exploiting the widespread lack of understanding of how modern agriculture works. Combine that with the amount of misinformation about agriculture that other interest groups promote and no wonder consumers are cynical about how their food is produced.
In December, a very interesting research report was published about a survey of 500 Americans aged 18 or older, who are not involved in the dairy industry, and who were asked to list the characteristics of an ‘ideal’ dairy farm. Such an open ended question seems likely to give some idea of what consumers might expect from dairy farmers.
The most important characteristic to these consumers was an operation where cows were treated humanely and with kindness. It is hard to say why this was top of mind, but maybe it has to do with some of the “sneak” videos that have troubled the dairy industry in the past few years. The timing is right for dairy farmers as each province is set to launch the animal care component of proAction. As an increasing number of dairy farms go through an animal care assessment, the results could be used to demonstrate that Canada’s dairy farmers are as equally concerned that their cows be treated humanely and with kindness and are willing to open their farms to outside observers to validate that they are reaching that goal. Of course, the more transparent the commitment, the greater the value of the program.
Survey respondents had a number of specific ideas about cow management, including having adequate space and opportunities for cows to exhibit their normal behaviour, access to being outside and to grazing. They also don’t like calves being removed from their dams immediately after birth. This is one of those management practices that people will always find difficult to accept. Another, not mentioned in the research paper, is docking of tails.
How cows are handled was also mentioned in relation to the quality and safety of dairy products produced on the ideal dairy farm. Many respondents felt that cows reared in a caring environment were less likely to become sick and require treatment. This would help assure the safety of milk. The use of hormones was also among the responses, likely due to the continued use of rBST in the U.S. It was not clear from the research paper if people who took the survey lumped reproductive drugs in the category of hormones.
Respondents also listed their desired economic characteristics of a farm. They acknowledged that dairy farming is a business and that dairy farms need to be efficient and profitable. But the operation should be small, as in family farm. In Canada, it isn’t clear that consumers realize that almost all dairy farms are indeed family farms.
Comparing the survey results with Canadian dairy farms, there are not big differences between the ‘idealized’ dairy farm and ‘real’ dairy farms. In many cases, there appear to be opportunities to educate consumers about the real life down on the farm.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.