Thursday, August 19, 2010

They're Just Cameras, Right?

So what about this whole issue of cameras and undercover videos being shot? I mean, how do we protect ourselves when hiring people whose agenda might be the demise of animal agriculture? I’ve a couple of ideas along those lines.
Surveillance cameras have been used in maternity barns for a while and have really become less expensive in the last few years. We’ve grown used to seeing them in place for preventing problems there, why not for preventing problems in other areas. Recent thefts in areas of Indiana, and Wisconsin of high dollar semen have given us a hint that increased security would be a wise move on our part, so why shouldn’t we use the same security systems to protect our reputations. They can be set on a continuous loop to keep a month or more of data on file. Knowing that sort of information is around keeps everyone on their toes just a bit. Heck, hang a few signs around that say, “premises under video surveillance”, what with the size of cameras anymore; they won’t be able to find them. A recent article in a dairy magazine talked about a dairy that had 16 cameras in place. One on the bulk tank, time card, working chute, etc. A quick check and I found a 4 camera system installed for $1500.00
Hiring practices. Wow has this one gotten a lot of scrutiny as of late, and is going to get worse. It’s time we in Ag figure out exactly what we can and can’t say to someone’s prospective employer. Nothing ticks me off more than finding out a problem was just passed along because nobody said anything about it. But there are legal limits to what we can say, and if these limits pose an issue in hiring animal caretakers, maybe we need to say something.
And lastly, if you don’t want it on camera, why in the heck are we doing it? Yes I know there are things that look worse for livestock than they are, but what we do needs to pass the test of “can this be justified?” Anyone who has ever handled livestock has become frustrated by livestock. They truly have a sense of making some jobs 10 times more difficult than it needs to be, but proper handling practices and facilities do help. But, all that being said, if you wouldn’t want someone to see it on tape, find a different way to do it. :)

Defend What?

So after the recent videos that surfaced showing a herdsman abusing cows, I really had to think long and hard about how those of us in Ag respond to abuse cases.
What is the proper response to wanting to beat some ignorant abusive idiot half to death twice?

I know what you are thinking, this guy is an order of fries short of a happy meal, and he is going be profound? Yep, made me laugh too, but with a little help from some friends, I have this to offer.

Condemn, Defend and Debate.

Condemn the abuse we see unconditionally. While the details might look like they are entirely too convenient for the animal rights crowd, the cold hard fact is that animals got abused. That, in and of itself should be enough to make our blood boil, and for us to want justice too. We need to let the justice system do its job. If there are details that look too neat, it makes us look bad if we are the ones looking for the black helicopters. The details usually come out.

Defend the common practices we use on the farm, and know why we do them. Clipping eye teeth, docking pig tails, debeaking hens, or castrating livestock. And really know why we use them. Be able to produce pictures of a young piglet that has had its’ face ripped up by another piglet who didn’t get his teeth clipped. Maybe a little graphic but, the animal rights folks need to see the consequences of their actions as well.  We need to understand that the animal rights folks won’t like many of the practices that we use, and that’s okay, but we need to know the details of our decisions.
Debate.  There are things that go on at a farm that we need to talk about. Veal Crates, gestation crates, and battery cages are all things that we presently use, but have we asked all the questions that we need to about animal comfort?  The whole realm of what an animal finds important is also important to use, but is really hard to define. Hard scientific facts on happiness? What makes me happy, stresses you out. If we can’t define degrees of happiness, or guarantee the total absence of stress in humans, making that determination in animals is really hard. When we get into debates about this stuff, it is too easy to question the experience that the opposition is using to make their calls. So many of them have never been to a farm, met a farmer, yet instinctively “know” what is important to an animal. And to some extent they may be somewhat right, wrong is wrong, and their feelings can’t be denied. But not knowing animals and animal behavior can make them see one thing and interpret it through human eyes and emotions.
But in my interactions, I’ve found most of the animal rights side will listen to a reasonable discussion. Some won’t, don’t waste your time on them.

Lights, Camera, Action?

Recently video came to light that showed a hired hand in Ohio abusing, well more or less everything on the farm. A certifiable sadist that had no respect for life in any form. Yep, the animal welfare folks went crazy. Everything from we told you so, to factory farming is inherently cruel with no respect for life. Calls went out for mandatory third party verification of surveillance camera footage. I mean if you don’t have anything to hide, why would you object, right?

But an interesting difference in philosophy came to the forefront. Calls from the Ag community for the prosecution of the cameraman started to come out. With the thought process that anyone who cared about animals would have put a stop to the abuse first and foremost, tell the boss and then the boss can fire him. The animal welfare community couldn’t believe the Ag community wanted to shoot the messenger, after all he was risking his life to see justice done, and I mean the owner was seen violently kicking a cow to get her up. The owner can’t be expected to fix this; he’s part of the problem.

It is my feeling that both sides of the argument have their valid points. Animal abuse cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute. There is the general feeling among the animal rights folks that the laws have been watered down by big Ag to prevent anyone from being charged. The Ag community feels that people who don’t understand animals, think everything we do with animals is inherently cruel and that animal rights groups should not be setting the standards of animal care.

No one involved in Ag argued the hired hands abuse, some defended the owner, but we lost the most ground with attacks on the cameraman. I’m pretty sure if the cameraman was involved, law enforcement will find the connection and take the appropriate measures.

We do have some challenges in the area of animal abuse laws. The abuse filmed in Ohio isn’t a felony under Ohio law. Is it abuse in my state? I’m not sure, but it should be. The question that comes out is what constitutes abuse? A swift kick, a swat with a hand, a cattle prod, or a pitchfork? The phrase that comes to mind was a quote on pornography. When asked for a definition of pornography, the speaker said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” The routine handling of animals shouldn’t necessarily leave itself open to that question.

Say What? Ok, That Ain't Right.

So in these conversations with the animal welfare crowd, how do we go about getting our story out? One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to get to know the people who perceive that they are on the other side of Ag. PETA supporters and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), both have a fairly popular following, and all involved have different ideas about their agendas. Some will argue that HSUS doesn’t have a vegan agenda, while someone else will point out that their leadership is vegetarian. These groups as I’ve pointed out before, are pretty good at getting their meatless message out, and do have Ag as an industry in a bit of a defensive position. They are trying to tell our story for us, and sometimes they are using information that’s just wrong.

An example of that played itself out recently for me. An anti- “factory”- farm poster listed off all of the hidden horrors of a modern factory dairy. Only problem is, they got them wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, WOW wrong. One of the details shared was the claim that rBST chemically induced cows give 10X the amount of milk that they would naturally. Now I got to admit 10x would be something to see. I can’t believe it would be in any way sustainable, but think of it, 800 lbs a day……………..

I try to stay on the edge of the fray.  I’m only a member of this site by invite, as one of two token farm folks. I try to mind my words and lay kind of low, but at some point it gets hard to keep your mouth shut. So I opened my big mouth and challenged the information. I gave the right info, but for lack of time, didn’t list sources. Someone asked for them, and the original poster gave,”the secret lives of cows”.

I try to stay pretty level headed in these spots, but I sort of lost it. My response went a bit like this.

“You gotta be kidding, I’ve got to refute that as a source? Wow. Fine, I’ll get to it, it’s really busy around here right now, it could take a day or two”.

And an interesting thing happened. About a half a dozen additional posts showed up, one even from the original poster, which refuted enough of the original claims that they lost their credibility. One post actually credited Monsanto’s site mentioning a 10% increase in production, which was my stance. But after I did a little digging, I found the same discredited facts on at least two other sites. So how do they come up with their numbers?  I’m not sure, but I’ll throw this out. A stock cow is as close to a natural cow as anyone in animal welfare will admit to, and she gives about 10-15 lbs of milk per day. A dairy cow that is cruising along can give anywhere from 100- 150 lbs/ day. So obviously the rBST enabled this cow to give 10X her “natural” amount of milk, right?

Kind of brings to mind the old adage, “Figures do not lie, but liars figure.”

So Why Would Anyone In Their Right Mind Do This?

Anyone who knows me can answer that question for you pretty easily. I’m just not quite right in the head. And you have to be a little bit different, to put up with a lot of the junk that is out there concerning animal welfare. If there’s a differing option out there, my guess is it will get fired at you at lightning speed.

But back to the question of the day. Why put yourself out there as a focal point for the crazies and nut cases?

Because it is really important to our industry. Less than 1% of our population is involved in feeding our nation.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics list farm jobs at just over eight hundred thousand. Double that number to cover the people involved in support businesses (like us), and let’s call the number 1.5 million.

1,500,000 feeding 300,000,000 people.

This puts way too many people too far away from the source of their food. Too many people who have no idea what goes into feeding them, no idea about what is involved in caring for their food, and no idea that those of us in the Ag industry really care about the food that gets produced for them.

Some education needs to happen and we need to decide whether or not we in Ag will be involved in the discussion. Have you even noticed that it is a lot easier to point a finger at a nameless mass, but when you know an individual, and he gets to call you on things you get wrong, it gets harder to embellish the story?  Megan and I’ve talked about a lot of things farm and she’s learned a few things and so have I concerning vegetarians. I’ll think twice about lumping them all into the nut case category.

Hopefully that is the effect that these conversations have on some of this group. Maybe they will question seeing a cow in a barn as not abusive, a calf getting dehorned, or piglet getting its eye teeth clipped as being an okay procedure. Or at least they will ask the question.

But can it make a difference? Yes, it can. Recently I got a message from a new friend, who after watching a video on animal abuse, commented that because of conversations had recently with a group of farmers, understood the differences in what constituted abuse.

I don’t expect this topic to go away anytime soon, and people with cameras will continue to show up. But let’s give as many people as we can an opportunity to know a farmer and see a farm. They don’t have to agree with every practice, but if they know the people involved, it would give them a place to start asking the questions.

Am I Being Poisoned to Death?

One of the unfortunate facts in this whole animal rights/ wholesome foods debate is that sometimes the conversation goes in directions that you haven’t the expertise to address. Someone throws out the fact that 100% of people die of something, and then you ask to disprove the fact. Huh? Follow that with the fact that if you word it right, nearly everything in life could sound much worse than it really is, and you have a problematic conversation on your hands.

But sometimes the folks on the other side of the farming issues really can make you aware of the dangers out there. A pair of Dr.’s recently put out a study that linked chemical use to the amount and variety of chemicals that are present in our foods, in our environment, in the houses that we live in, etc. But don’t let the big names of the chemicals scare you, because while most are untested, they have been able to extend our life expectancy rates to levels unimaginable just 100 years ago.

But in my research I’ve come across a silent killer, a killer that few of us are aware of:


Scared yet? You should be. From my point of view, very little scares me more than death by dihydrogen monoxide.

This chemical is responsible for untold deaths in the US, and a nearly unspeakable number of deaths around the world. Inhaling something like 6 oz of this chemical is enough to kill the average adult.  It is present in the air we breathe, and in varying levels in the food we eat. It can collect on roads during the summer, causing numerous accidents, and when it freezes on roads, it becomes slippery and unstable. It is a vector for the transmission of food borne illnesses, and has also been known to be the leading factor in animal waste spills. While quite a bit is known about the effects of this chemical on the human body, few people are aware of the toxicity problem that exists. Under high pressure this chemical can cut flesh. Wars have been fought over this chemical.

We need to commit the funds and the resources needed to make the public aware of the looming dangers present here. Studies need to be commissioned, regulations passed, and this chemical needs to be taxed heavily to discourage its irresponsible use. I have actually come across examples of parents letting their children running through this chemical on their lawns, exposing their young bodies to the possible toxic side effects of this substance. Where are the child endangerment laws that are designed to protect these children?  I put forth that we should limit the amount of dihydrogen monoxide to not quantities of not larger than 20 oz, and require regulations, signed forms and extensive education for anyone wishing to endanger themselves with larger amounts.

Wow, that rant made me thirsty, time for something to drink.  Wait a minute……………..

To learn more about this dangerous substance click here:

Milk - The Other White Meat

So we’ve established that my friend Megan thinks cows have souls and deserve a long life, and while I disagree, I can respect her position.

So what about milk?

I mentioned to Megan that drinking more milk would keep a cow alive longer, as well as providing great nutrients to her diet. Her response was this. “Hmm, I’m not sure how much more compromise either of us can make. haha, I suppose we just see the dairy industry differently. I’ve heard that milk isn’t actually as nutritious as we’ve been told: “They (dairy products) contain no fiber or complex carbohydrates and are laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. They are contaminated with cow’s blood and pus and are frequently contaminated with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.” In addition, I wouldn’t want to support “Corporate-owned factories where cows are warehoused in huge sheds and treated like milk machines,” even if that isn’t true for all farms.

So where did Megan get this information from? That’s even more interesting.

“I’ve been getting all of my information about dairy from PETA ( and, while considering the fact that some of their claims may be biased and exaggerated, I generally believe what they say.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know that PETA had gone to that end to discredit our industry, and the extent to which they went to make “us” look bad.

The fact that milk gets numerous tests on the way from the farm to the consumer, the fact that it gets tested for a wide variety of contaminates, the good that the nutrients in milk do for us, is not getting to this group of young people.

I sent a link to Megan that talked about the good things that are in milk, and would dispel some of the “facts” that were on the PETA site.

This site contains a lot of great information on the facts of the dairy industry concerning milk. But it’s pretty cold and clinical. Definitely not as “sexy”, as the horrible people, horrible products view that PETA portrays. So how do we make what we do look more attractive? Well, first we need to find someone better looking than me to tell the story.

Can I Join the Battle?

Join the Battle. Enter the fray. Get involved.

Megan is, like most young people today, very comfortable with technology. She blogs on several locations, and is involved several other social networking sites. Much of this battle is going to be fought online, and us old folks are showing up late to the party. But like I told someone a few years back, just because I’m a field rep for QLF does not mean I’m unable to learn something new.

Today’s social media is a crazy place that moves at the speed of light. Literally. FIber Optics, high speed connections,  blackberrys,  wireless. We are figuring out how to use this stuff for work, and our kids would have trouble functioning without it.

There are groups on the internet strictly for the exchange of ideas regarding groups like PETA, HSUS, even the Animal Liberation Front. Finding these groups can be a little trial and error, especially since some of the animal welfare groups, as well as some of the groups on the ag side, don’t always allow discenting views.  You can find them on facebook, twitter, etc.  The discussions can get a bit frustrating at times because the information isn’t always correct, anywhere from slightly to incredibly biased (both ways), and some folks aren’t always very nice. But the exchange can be addicting, fascinating and thought provoking.

So like I asked in the opening line, “want to join the fray?”.  Come on in, the water is fine, full of sharks maybe, but pretty fine. I’ve been joining in a few of the conversations, and while fun, sometimes it can get a little discouraging.

But for those of you still interested, here are a few of my tips.

Be respectful. While the temptation to call someone any idiot is always there, ( and you may want to)the anonymity of the internet never gives anyone the right to be disrespectful. This is especially true when our comments will be taken as a representation of the industry.

Have your facts ready and correct. Some sources come with biases, be aware of that and be ready give the facts that back your position. We need to be right as well as passionate, to counter the fact that we don’t really care about animals.

Understand that the phrase “Big Ag”, while vilified roundly, has come to mean most of us. We aren’t immune to what they are saying.

Be confident in the act that the practices we use on our farms are in fact treating animals with respect. Just because someone disagrees, it does not make us wrong.

Have fun. In the middle of Megan and my conservation, I got an application to join Peta and fill out a survey. LOL. (Laugh Out Loud) I asked Megan how she managed that. She said she didn’t, but I’m not sure she didn’t have a hand in it somehow.  I really should have joined.

So Who Really Cares for Animals?

One of the comments that I made to Megan that seemed to surprise her, was the fact that animal agriculture is being driven today by people who have never been on a farm. Her response went along the lines of,” How do we drive the care of animals?”  Megan has been upfront about being a vegetarian, and willing to be vocal about it, but my choice to eat meat was my choice. Not everyone is as accepting of our choice of eating meat or our given industry. We absolutely can expect them to get more vocal, more active and to refine their message.

And what will be their message? They obliviously care more than we do. Expect them to claim the high moral ground, and to drive a wedge between us in the industry about what animal care really means. The later has been happening for a number of years with groups like the I-29er’s for Quality of Life, and several groups that claim sustainable Ag is the only future. Farms that have grown larger to improve our quality of life as well as our efficiency are being vilified, by people in the industry as well as by the activist outside of Ag. When I started in the feed business, a dairy with 120 cows, 250 sows, or 1000 cattle was considered big. Not today. Nostalgia is wonderful but it will not feed an exploding population.

There is a great quote that really applies here, and I wish I knew where it originated. “Only a well fed person questions where their food comes from.” When food and affluence are plentiful, many people feel the need for a cause. In this country we have both, and the result is a cause that some are throwing themselves at with a religious fervor. I’ve heard said that more people have died as a result of religious disagreements than in the two world wars. After seeing some of the stuff online about animal rights, I can’t help but believe this to apply to our battle as well.

So who really cares for our animals? We do. There should never be any question left in anyone’s mind about that fact. We need to work on the PR part of that equation, and social media will be a part of that.

There are few web sites that are doing a great job of telling the Ag story and showing the world who really cares for the animals.

Amanda Nolz writes a blog for Beef Daily. Lots of great information and insights into agriculture.

Advocates for Agriculture, started by Troy and Stacy Hadrick, from western South Dakota

A Real Farm Girl. A YouTube video diary of a young lady from South Dakota, as she lives and works a on her family’s farm.

Feedstuffs Foodlink. A venture of Feedstuffs magazine.

A Whack Job?

So are we as tough to defend as the bunch of whack jobs that we get portrayed as? Sometimes we might, and today I find that disheartening.   We get painted into corners by people who wish us gone from the planet, that’s rough enough, but what really is their agenda? In some cases it is tough to tell. But never fear, they care about animals.

But do they understand animals?

Mike Roe, Dirty Jobs Mike Roe, recently posted a video on YouTube about questioning what you’ve been told. He tells of a job, early on in the show, where he needed to castrate a lamb. With his teeth. It went against everything that he’d been told by the HSUS, PETA and the SPCA, but in fact, he discovered it was the least painful and most humane way to do the job. The video on YouTube is pretty entertaining, and well as educational. A link is provided below. Thanks Ann.
But what other things might Ag opposition be getting wrong. Let’s talk about sow gestation crates for a bit. HSUS vilifies factory farms for the practice, and even uses it in their fund raising video. So have we ever discussed why we do it? Well there are several reasons, and to really understand them you need to spend time with sows. Has anyone fed sows in a group setting? I did in my younger days, and inevitably the big sows got bigger, and the small ones went hungry. The fact that they have been reported to have the intelligence of a three year old, didn’t make them any nicer to each other. In fact they tended to be brutal. Individual crates allow keepers to feed them without fear of them injuring themselves or each other. Ever try to handle a 400 pound sow? Safety for the people handling them is important as well. But the opposition looks at them through human eyes and values and says we are wrong.
Have you heard about the animals being cut up while still alive at the processing plant? Or watched the videos? Wonder why that happens? Well, as the story was told to me some years ago, a group of animal rights activists got the hog industry to use an electrical stun on hogs. Not enough to kill them but enough to render them unconscious. In fact, only enough so that they would revive after just a few minutes. If not perfectly placed, this amount would indeed allow an animal to revive too soon. But the industry can’t use enough to do the job right every time, so here we are.

Chickens and turkeys are killed by having their heads removed. No pain killers are used because the administration would hurt more than the act that causes of their death. But because they aren’t part of the Humane Slaughter Act, something must be wrong with it. Did you know that the guillotine was developed by the French as a painless method of execution? At least they got that right.

Soul Man

My friend Megan believes animals have the same right to a long life that we do. She understands the circle of life, but believes that as people we have options that the rest of nature doesn’t.  A lion doesn’t have a choice in whether or not to take the life of an animal to eat, but we do. She has made the choice not to.

I respect her right to make that choice. Totally respect it. And I can appreciate how someone could come to that conclusion, but it’s a point that we disagree on. I don’t agree that people and animals were created as equals, or that over time, we’ve evolved into equals.  And I don’t think any less of Megan for her stand on this subject. That’s probably the thing I’ve most come away with through this whole discussion. This mutual respect for opposing ideas and we seem to come across less and less these days.

As a part of learning more about social networking, via places like facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc, I’ve found a lot of intolerance on both side of the animal debate. And some of the folks on our side of the debate scare me easily as much as the people on the fringe of the other side. It is easy to write off the extreme animal right faction when they go right to the “stupid redneck hick” putdowns, but we can easily miss a lot of really neat people but ignoring this whole group because of the wack jobs.

But to the question of  souls. I asked Megan if she thought animals had souls. Her answer was yes, they have souls, as well as the ability to think, feel pain or express emotions. “Just because animals aren’t as intelligent as humans , does not mean that they are soulless. So if a soul is defined by the presence of life love, and emotions, which is as well as I can define it, then yes, animals most certainly have souls.”

I’m not sure how to argue with that point. But I know it made me think. It even made me do a little research that surprised me a little bit. I had always (mistakenly) thought death and the eating of animals happened right after Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I was off by a couple of generations. Nine generations I think. The permission to use animals as food happens curiously enough, when Noah leaves the ark. Not what I thought, but pretty interesting.  Genesis 9:3,”Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything.” So eating meat wasn’t a direct result of the fall. Hmmmm…….

One of the cool things about the conversation that Megan and I have been having, is we haven’t tried to “fix” each other. Our ideas and opinions have been respected, questioned, supported and questioned again. And I think I can speak for Megan when I say we’ve both learned a few things.

So Who Is This Vegetarian?

I don’t know. I really don’t have a clue. But the anonymity of the internet has allowed the two of us to exchange ideas, an exchange of ideas that a few years ago, wouldn’t have happened. That being said, not everyone is comfortable with the exchange that Megan and I have had. Stalker jokes, comments about becoming a target of a wacko (on either side of this issue) are real.  Both sides have their nut cases. The nut cases on our side gleefully describe eating the ones the other side is trying to save. The extremists on their side call us guards at a concentration camp. But somewhere in the middle I happened along a pretty level headed young woman named Megan.

This is what I know, and what I think I know. Megan lives in a somewhat rural state, in a town of 10.000 to 15,000 people. She has been a member of the PETA Street team for three years. She is bright and articulate. She knows that the information that comes from PETA is biased, but is still deciding where the line on their credibility lies.  She hadn’t talked to any farmers before the conversation she had with me. She’s been to a winter farm show, and the tethered show animals bothered her.  She believes strongly in her convictions, but has made it clear recently that going vegan is difficult to do. I think she is a teenager, but I’m not sure.  I might know a little more, but she protects her identity well.

So why don’t I know more? Because it’s none of my business.  Period.  I’m a middle aged husband with four teenagers in my house.  I don’t need a reason to get in trouble, it happens on its own. Megan shares what she is comfortable with sharing. One of the questions that Megan asked early on was,”Why the interest in me? Or are you just interested in the mind of a vegan?” The later is the case, and she has been really open to sharing her thoughts on what we as animal folks do, and has been open  to hearing about our interpretation on how a farm works. With her help, several farm friends and I have been able to interact with a small community of PETA supporters, in a very measured and respectful way.

So does it makes sense to get involved in an exchange like this? Not for everyone, but we need to exchange ideas with those who are and aren’t our customers.  Here are some tips if you would like to. It’s not our job to “fix” the way they think. Be respectful of opposing views. Think about how you talk about things that we do. And have fun.

AI Does Not Mean Artificial Intelligence

The disclaimer, “If you are easily offended, stop reading now. This might, I don’t mean to, but someone is going to be offended,”
Some topics are a little sensitive and this one can be. We try to be clinical about things that happen on the farm, but again life experiences and farm life are what we use as a frame of reference. It’s what we know. It doesn’t always translate well.  A friend of mine has a couple of young sons, who are real farm kids. At 7 and 5 years old, they understand a lot more about the birds and bees than their contemporaries. Breeding season in the sheep yard made for some interesting show and tell items. Pipettes and sleeves are a lot of interesting fun, right? Their teacher kind of edits their items now.

It is an unfortunate part of life these days, but kids get exposed to sex at an earlier and earlier age, but don’t necessarily understand the facts about and surrounding the birds and the bees.

My brother had a group of second graders taking a tour of his dairy. In the prep for the tour, I asked the question.” What do we say if the question of the daddy cows is asked?” “We don’t say anything.” The way he said it told me there was a lot more to the story. It turns out there was.

A friend was giving a dairy tour to a group of fifth grade girls from his church. On the way back to the office from the barns, the topic of the daddy cows came up. Having grown up on the farm, and having raised kids on the farm as well, “Greg’s view of this topic was, keep it clinical, and don’t be embarrassed, it’s just the birds and the bees, right? So the group steps into the office where Greg keeps his AI tool box. Greg is busy describing what is happening, and he reaches into the tool box and pulls out a plastic sleeve. As he pulls it on his arm, one of these precious little fifth grade girls, get this horrified look on her face, and says, and I quote,

”your not going to shove your whole arm down her throat, are you?!”

“No dear”, he said as he slid the sleeve back off of his arm,” you need to ask your mom for the rest of this story.”

So when the question “How do you tell the boy calves from the girl calves”, came up on my brother’s second grade farm tour, we told them that the little girls have this pretty little metal ear ring, (bangs clip) but a lot like with people, boys don’t usually wear ear rings.

Next question, Pleeeassse.

A Veal Dilemma

“So what we really have a problem is with the boy calves, we don’t like the veal industry.” The perception out there seems to be that the veal industry is the most widespread use of dairy bull calves. So where does this thought come from? Well, on this one we can thank, in part, our friends at the USDA. If you search veal on the USDA web site, you get this statement. “Dairy cows must give birth to continue producing milk, but male dairy calves are of little or no value to the dairy farmer. A small percentage are raised to maturity and used for breeding.”(1)
So if I read that article the way a young person with no Ag experience does, well I guess I would think, all dairy bull calves are veal calves. I would also believe cows must be in a state of perpetual pregnancy to give milk.
This is a pretty good example of how, when we don’t have enough life experiences, our minds fill in the empty holes. Unfortunately, as an industry we often write things, say things and show things that mean one thing to us, yet from a different angle or perspective look very different.
Individual calf housing, artificial insemination and somatic cell count are all things that make sense to us, but to others they can look like calf prison, reproduction gone wrong, and milk laced with contaminants. A cow that is unable to walk, (a downer cow) is the way all cows finish their lives. Clipping a piglet’s teeth, castrating or tail docking are considered torture, not something being done for an animals’ safety. When an animal dies, it died because we didn’t care, we pumped it full of drugs, or because we tortured it with neglect.
Most young people these days aren’t exposed to death the way people used to be. Death is something to be avoided at all costs. Everyone is trying to shelter themselves from anything that looks, smells or feels uncomfortable, so it’s no surprise that they run from the thought or the reality of death. They approach any death, even that that of a food animal, with that same sense of dread.
Oh, and at some point we really need to talk about how artificial insemination looks to the non-ag community. I mean really, you put your arm where?

So What Else Should I Know??

That’s the question Megan posed to me. Great question, but where do you start with someone whose total exposure to farming is as a member of the PETA street team.( I didn’t know that detail at the time)
What would you and your friends like to ask a farmer? Okay admittedly kind of a cop-out question, but it’s where I went.

“What do you do with the calves, particularly the male ones?” I explained the process of raising a calf, all the way through the feedlot stage. That brought us to the first major point of disagreement. That being the slaughtering of animals for food. The set of beliefs that many of these young people operate under is that cows deserve a long life as much as we do. In fact Megan’s direct quote is “I don’t value the life of an animal over that of a human.”

One of the lines that I grew up with was this question. “Why don’t you name your cows? Answer, Because you don’t name your food, do you?” Our premise is that these animals are raised for food, and while we value their lives, both as a living creature as well as economically, they are in fact food.  This new crop of activist/consumers haven’t been exposed to life and death the way many of us did growing up on the farm. They believe that death is something to be avoided at all costs.

To an extent, some of our experiences make us seem extremely callous about life and death. When I was growing up on the farm, cats were a renewable resource. They followed a boom and bust pattern of reproduction. While we didn’t abuse them, they were largely left to fend for themselves. When a calf died, it was a part of the life cycle, and we felt bad about it. But life went on. Values have changed. When Oprah calls her dogs, “her furry children”, and people are spending $10,000 on chemotherapy for their cat, yep it’s different.   But by reaching out, usually in pretty small ways, to some of these young people, we can show them that we have a heart.   A pretty big heart.

A Family Farm?

“Well, if it’s a family farm it can’t be so bad.”

Megan has never been on a farm. Never.  Never ever.  Megan lives in a town of 13,000 people in a rural state, and I was the first person in production agriculture that she ever even talked to.  But back to the family farm topic. Megan followed up by asking whether or not we were good to our cows.  I explained that our cows are comfortable, well cared for, eat a diet that is more balanced than most humans, and get on site health care.  The follow up questions were these. “This isn’t very common is it? What I’ve read, it says most milk comes from factory farms where cows are treated like machines, given drugs, and have to be kept pregnant to be milked. Isn’t that kind of wrong?”

So where does this information come from? Pretty simple, PETA has done a tap dance on us in production agriculture. When someone who knows nothing about farms, can quantify how bad a farm is strictly by how large it is, we have a problem.

I explained the reality of treating animals with drugs. Drugs cost money, get used only as needed, but are used to keep animals healthy. Not much different than how people should use drugs. The other thing that seemed to be a surprise was the fact that we try to reduce stress as much as possible. Stress costs us production and thus money. It’s in our best interest to make life as care free as we can.
And keeping cows pregnant?  Sort of.  One of the things that isn’t mentioned in any PETAarticles is the dry period.  We need to take back the language of agriculture. As of today the dry period is a cow-cation.  Cows really have a great life, they don’t need to worry about child care, and we take care of that for them.  Their to do list, consists of what do I eat?, What do I drink? And where do I sleep?    Sounds like a trailer park full of snowbirds in Tucson, AZ.

And where did this list of questions come from? PETA talking points.

Let’s make our own list of talking points, and we had better get started soon.


So everyone loves us and the job we do, right? Okay, so some days we aren't all that popular with the competition, some customers, and perhaps not even the people we work with. But how many of us interact with the people that want to put us out of business entirely? That is the position that I find myself in.

Okay, a little background might be helpful. My name is Mike and I volunteer for a teen ministry on Sunday evenings, and one night last July I googled the ministry's name. One of the hits I found was a blog written by a young lady, and was followed by a blog supporting PETA. So I made a comment, that if she wanted to see how a real farm animal lives its' life, I'd find a farm, (my brothers) and she was welcome to come take a look.

And so started the farm conversation with a vegetarian member of a PETA Street team named Megan.
So why would anyone want to walk into that hornet's nest? Good question, and one that deserves an answer. I, like a lot of you grew up on a farm. Awesome place to grow up. Life lessons abounded, and I find that even though I don't presently live on a farm, the love of animals and agriculture is something that my kids love too.

But consumers as a whole aren't in any way, shape, fashion or form, aware of what a farm is, or how animals are raised. They are making decisions about their food based on what they hear from PETA, or worse, from Katie Couric and the CBS Evening News (I think PETA is being held more accountable than CBS at this point). If we intend for any part of want we do to be passed along to the next generation, we owe it to our industry to find ways to educate and interact with those consumers.

So every once in a while I'm going to post a note here about what Megan and I have been talking about, and the perspective that this young lady has on what we do for a living.

I hope you enjoy it, and maybe together we can learn something.