SAN ANTONIO, Feb. 4, 2015 – While several segments of the meat industry may already be seen on the losing side of the animal welfare perception battle, there may still be hope for beef.
Legislative and public relations battles against housing practices in pork and chicken production are largely seen as falling on the side opposing agriculture. In pork production, more and more companies are phasing out facilities that use gestation crates in their production system. In poultry, California’s Proposition 2, which includes housing requirements for egg-laying hens, went into effect at the beginning of 2015. Despite these two blows to other aspects of animal agriculture, there hasn’t been such a notable loss in the beef industry.
Speaking at a Cattlemen’s College session at the Cattle Industry Convention in San Antonio, Dave Daley, the interim dean of the College of Agriculture at California State University, Chico, said production practices are already naturally evolving in the beef industry, so long as they are the beef industry’s idea.
“We are already changing, and that’s okay – if WE do it. We just damn well don’t want somebody to tell us we have to,” Daley said, using the increase of low-stress cattle-handling workshops as an example. “We’re doing those things ourselves. We shouldn’t apologize for (improving methods), we shouldn’t say we’ve been forced into it, we’re going to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Although beef production has self-improved in many cases, Daley said some common practices among farmers and ranchers could be easily misconstrued by those seeking to do the industry harm. While practices like castration, dehorning and ear marking are considered common and necessary surgical procedures within the industry, he said those same practices could be spun as unnecessary mutilation.
Daley said since these practices aren’t high on the animal welfare radar, there is still an opportunity for education to take place before the battle is lost on another agricultural production issue.
“You know when we’re going to wake up and realize this is a real issue? When it’s too late,” Daley said, referencing the fight within agriculture against the term “factory farm” as an example. “I don’t think we have to make a lot of changes, we have to make slow, incremental improvements in what we do”
While the most common opponents to animal agriculture are usually animal rights activists, Daley encouraged cattlemen to target their engagement to a different audience. He likened the debate to a bell curve. On one extreme lies the activists seeking to abolish animal agriculture entirely, on the other side the producers seeking to protect their livelihoods. In the middle of the bell curve, he said, is the general public seeking information. Daley said agricultural advocates would be better off directing their attention at this population because time directed at refuting the extreme outliers in the debate may not be necessary. “The public knows nutcases then they see them,” Daley said.
Daley encouraged Cattlemen’s College attendees to venture outside of their comfort zones to find opportunities to educate – but not lecture – the public about the strides being made in beef production. He said events like the Cattle Industry Convention are great, but being in an isolated population of several thousand people all in agreement does little to further the cause among the millions of people seeking answers. He said this goes far beyond the commonly used rhetoric used by many in agriculture of “telling our story,” but has to include listening to the questions and concerns of the consumer.
The traditional standpoint of the nobility of food production might need a little tweaking, Daley said, as the public becomes more and more interested in where their food comes from. He said insisting on the importance of production methods without being willing to disclose or explain them won’t work anymore, and producers should be ready to take on that challenge.
“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say it’s a noble cause but say it’s none of your damn business how I do it. That’s hypocrisy,” Daley said. “You need to open up to the fact that people want to know what you do and whether it’s important or not.”
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