We in the media are often accused of creating alarmist headlines and Armageddon-type crises to sell magazines and generate page views.
But this time, folks, we really do have a crisis in the dairy industry. It’s not one that will cause immediate carnage to thousands of dairy farms in the coming days or weeks.
It will, however, erode consumer confidence in dairy products and farmers’ social license and trust within their communities to do business.
So what is this crisis? Consumer perception of how dairy farmers care for their animals. “We have a growing trust problem,” says David Pelzer, senior vice president of strategic communications, Dairy Management, Inc.
“Thirty-five percent of the millennial generation now believes dairy farmers abuse their animals and that more than 50% of farms have a problem with animal care,” he says.
These consumer perceptions are alarming and cannot be ignored, Pelzer says,
Millennials are the generation of consumers born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. There are more than 80 million of them in the U.S.—the largest cohort in history and more populous than baby boomers.
And oh, by the way, millennials are now raising the next generation of consumers.
Unlike baby boomers who get their news from network TV and newspapers, millennials are connected to the Internet and social media 24/7—right where animal activists, such as PETA, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Mercy for Animals live and thrive. These groups’ common goal is to put an end to animal agriculture, Pelzer says.
Animal abuse videos, which are yesterday’s news on national networks and newspapers, never die on the Internet. From the consumer polling mentioned previously, they are having a dangerous, corrosive impact.
“Consumers who have never been on a dairy farm don’t know the difference between egregious animal abuse and accepted dairy management practices, when a video makes it all look bad,” Pelzer says.
What can you do? First, don’t assume such a video couldn’t be created on your farm.
Gary Conklin, a dairy cattle broker from Columbus, Ohio, buys close-up heifers, calves them on his farm and then sells them as freshened heifers to farmers. His operation was the subject of an abuse video in May 2010.
The incident cost him his milk market, community trust and even physical threats to him, his family and his business that required police protection. His advice:
- Know your employees. Do thorough background checks on job applicants, difficult as that can be.
- Have legally binding contracts with employees that specifically state no animal abuse will be tolerated.
- Conduct third-party animal welfare audits of your operation to evaluate your animal care and handling practices. Involve employees so they know what is expected. “Audits should be done annually,” he says. “I think we’re to that point, not only for our own individual protection but for the protection of the industry as a whole.”
JIM DICKRELL is the editor of Dairy Today. You can contact him at: