The DFO’s February Grass-Fed Milk meeting in St. Bernardin drew about 20 farmers. Some, like us, have had cows feeding on grass for years out of a personal preference. A larger number of farmers were there to find out more and possibly drop the feeding of corn silage and butterfat-enhancing additives. There was also a fringe group trying to figure out how to fit into the program while retaining as much of their current feeding program as possible. A premium of 10 cents per litre certainly brings out the thinking caps!
To the latter group, DFO’s director of operations George MacNaughton used the phrase “consumer perception” several times to address ideas such as feeding green chop in freestall housing instead of pasturing. The term ‘grass-fed milk’ infers that the herds are pastured and fed grass/legume based rations. If anything other was allowed and it became public knowledge, this niche market would be shot in the foot, as well as farming in general.
Awhile later, I watched a PBS TV show about the American poultry industry’s niche markets, organic and free range eggs. Both terminologies create images of hens on pastures, scratching in the ground and eating bugs and plants.
But the producer they interviewed proudly showed off the massive outdoor runs built along his hen houses. Yes, the hens had access to the outdoors in these huge ‘verandas’ but not as expected. Roofs kept them shaded and protected from rain and sun, welded wire mesh along the front kept wild birds out and them in and the floor was cement, hosed down regularly to keep it clean. This is definitely not what the labels implied.
Out of curiosity I have asked about a dozen people how they envision how the farm animals they eat are managed on the farm, and with only one exception, all their views are the exact opposite of reality.
They thought that all dairy cows are on pasture at some point and in the winter are in warm, well-bedded stalls. The one exception had been to a summer ‘open house’ at a freestall barn so she knew the cows weren’t pastured but her winter perception was spot on with the others: warm and cosy. Wood shavings, sand or recycled manure as bedding were unheard of.
Everyone also expected their beef and sheep to be pastured. Visions of animals in green fields filled their heads. Sorry, the only two large sheep producers we know have their sheep housed 365 days of the year. This is as much about fencing, predator (both wild and domestic) protection and ease of handling. We know two beef producers who calve out and raise their animals all in big canvas buildings. They are never on pasture either.
They thought pigs were also on pasture too, rooting around in the soil. No one envisioned their bacon wallowing in a mud hole but that is understandable. Concrete and steel buildings weren’t mentioned.
These non-farmers expected poultry to be housed in large buildings, thousands of birds to a floor, largely due to the publicity given to animals rights groups. But they also thought that eggs marketed as organic or free-range meant the birds were out scratching in the dirt.
A lot of these misconceptions are due to ignorance. People see a field with dairy cattle and don’t know they are young heifers. When they spy a field with a few dozen beef cows or sheep it represents all such animals sold for slaughter. In reality, livestock on pasture is a drop in the bucket.
As marketing boards and the realities of cost management push more and more farmers to house livestock for their entire lives in cavernous barns of steel, concrete and canvas, the distance between “consumer perception” and reality widens.
The agricultural industry must start to actively encourage those who choose to farm outside the modern mega-box, especially if their preference is pasturing in summer and cosy barns in the winter. After all, they are the farmers protecting the massive operations by reinforcing consumer perception with sunshine and green fields.
Angela Dorie is an agricultural writer and a Jersey farmer near Cornwall.