BY JEN LIVSEY
“People need to know that we in agriculture like animals.” This simple but profound statement is the wisdom of Curt Pate, who travels the nation giving workshops on horsemanship and stockmanship. I recently attended one of his workshops and sat in the crowd of cattlemen when he shared this insight, which speaks to the fact that consumer behavior is driven by emotion, not scientific knowledge. I, like many ranchers, am often frustrated by the misinformation and fads that continually decrease the public’s trust in modern agriculture. When given the opportunity to address a question or concern about the cattle industry, my natural inclination is to cite facts and figures, to quote studies, and refer to articles. In many presentations and conversations I have done just this – but Curt’s advice is a reminder that fact-based education is not enough. How consumers think we in agriculture feel about animals matters – a lot.
The average urban or suburban resident, whose relationship with animals is limited to pets and whose exposure to livestock is often limited to an undercover HSUS video, is becoming increasingly suspicious that most producers have, at best, cold feelings for the animals we raise and, at worst, malicious or negligent sentiments. Chipotle brilliantly marketed to these consumer suspicions in this year’s Super Bowl commercial (though as far as facts go it came up a bit short, as noted in this excellent piece), and many other marketers of natural/organic/’better’ food have similar tactics. If people think we don’t like animals, it not a huge leap to think that we would mistreat them, pump them full of harmful substances, and degrade the environment they live in. While I am not claiming that there are not bad apples in our industry or that we can’t improve, I can very knowledgeably state that the majority of us in animal agriculture like animals. I,like four previous generations in my family, have spent my life around cattle and horses and feel very lucky to be a part of such stewardship. The relationship I have with our cattle is not the same relationship I have with my dog, but I have endured many long hot days and cold nights ensuring the comfort and health of our animals. True, there is absolutely an economic incentive to treat animals well; calm, healthy animals translate into higher quality meat and more profit, no matter if the final product is natural, organic, grass-fed, or conventional. But there is also an inherent sense that it is right to treat them well, even if their eventual purpose is to feed us. To think that people in modern agriculture have no concern for the animals under their care is to say that we must be a pretty irrational bunch – you don’t see people who dislike dogs working at kennels, so why would a rancher or feedlot employee be inherently different?
I was recently home on my family’s ranch riding around with my former Marine Corp officer/cowboy brother, who surprised me in our bull pasture when he walked right up to a young bull and started petting him, which the bull clearly enjoyed. I know this trust had taken some time to develop, as our cattle are not usually tame enough to touch. He has just taken the time to do it because he enjoys being around animals. Interactions like these are not something he, or the majority of those of us in the cattle industry, will talk about with our cattle buyer or at a cattlemen’s meeting or with a consumer who challenges us about practices in our industry. But on Pate’s advice, we should.