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Today, it is not good enough to produce one of the safest, cheapest and most efficient food supplies in history. Food must also be perceived as wholesome, animal-friendly and environmentally sustainable. On top of all that, it must be something that consumers feel good about including in their diet.
Sound science does not always win in the marketplace, but remains important on the farm. The classic case in the marketplace is the resistance to BST, which has impacted all levels of the food chain from the producer to the dairy case in the local grocery.
A major but declining sector of consumers understands the food system that produces wholesome and reliable food. There is a sector that has no idea and is not really concerned. However, a growing number of people are very concerned about where and how their food is produced and want an idealized system from the farm to their table. They want to be assured of the welfare of the animals, the management of environmental impact and the sustainability of the system.
The message is crystal clear: The enlightened consumer's perception will rule the day. We in the production sector must be aware that what we do and how we do it will have a bottom-line impact on how our products are accepted in the market.
For the most part, milk and milk products, along with the image of the dairy cow, have positive influences with most consumers. I find it comforting to go to craft shows and see all kinds of things with the image of the black-and-white cow. We need to protect those images. In our role as nutrition advisers and mentors to dairy producers, there are some important massages to deliver.
We need to talk about cattle diets enhanced with high-quality inputs to support productive, healthy and comfortable dairy cows, and rumen-friendly diets that provide a low-stress environment. A relaxed and contented cow is the theme of the day.
The use of waste products, low-quality inputs and junk feeds in the ration is out. Recycled feed products with enhanced nutritional values are in. The use of rendered animal products such as meat meal, blood meal, fish meal and even animal fat products may need to be evaluated in terms of consumer acceptance.
Concerns about mycotoxins and molds in feeds may go beyond an impact on the performance of the ration to an impact on the customer, with or without scientific evidence. The use of antibiotics, rumen fermentation enhancements and reproductive therapies must be used with absolute care.
The pasture myth is another issue. The image of cows contentedly lounging on green pastures is pervasive in the marketing of dairy products. Somehow we must be prepared to promote the reality of harvesting forages at their peak of quality and preserving and storing them to provide consistent quality feed for the cow.
As producers we have a special role in creating customer confidence in our products. The image of the farm is especially important. Clean, attractive and animal-friendly facilities are crucial. Just looking good from the road or the farm gate is not enough. We have all seen enough images that have emerged from behind the scenes to know we need to be diligent from within. The concept is that the customer's expectation must match up with the reality in the farmyard. An image of clean and neat feed storage areas, accurately mixing feed, is in. Rodent and bird contamination, sloppy facilities and animal mortality are out. We must present a good image to visitors every day.
Sell the image of balanced and wholesome diets fed to comfortable, contented cows producing wholesome milk for dairy products that you feel good about including in your family's meals. The marketing system is responsive to those perceptions, and it is in our best interest to make them a priority.