Consumers Say “Tell Me More” About Your Sustainable Practices
Social media is bringing consumers closer to dairy producers than they’ve ever been, and consumers are asking, "Where does my food come from?"
Dairy farms, and all types of farms, in the US have gotten bigger. Through a consumer’s eyes, they see farming as “industrialized.” When anything gets bigger, it raises concerns and questions.
“People want to be connected to and know the farmers who are growing and raising their food,” said Dr. Gordon Jones, dairy veterinarian and consultant based near Nekoosa, Wisconsin. “When I walked into a Five Guys restaurant recently, the first sign said, ‘What farm does my potato come from today?’ People want to know if the farmer treated the land well, if the potatoes were harvested clean, if the right amount of fertilizer was put on the land. People have a closer farm-to-fork connection than ever before.”
Dr. Jones noted that consumer food drivers vary. Some are environmentally conscious, others are concerned about animal welfare. Others worry most that their food is wholesome, nutritious and organic, while some are just trying to make ends meet and seek affordable food that’s safe for their family.
“We label consumer drivers as ‘concerns’ and ‘worries,’ but we need to recognize that many consumers aren’t condemning agriculture, they are just asking questions,” he said. “They want more transparency. They are saying ‘Tell me more.’”
How Is Dairy Responding?
Producers’ first response was defensiveness because they felt people were saying they didn’t take good care of their animals.
“Once producers get past their defensive posture, they realize that they have applied solid science, animal husbandry and stockmanship to the care, feeding and housing of their animals, and their defensive nature changes to an openness that welcomes a conversation about the science of caring for their cows,” he said.
Dairy producers are often self-confident, quiet, introverts, who don’t typically reach out to tell the world what a good job they are doing. Overall, the industry still has a long way to go, but Dr. Jones sees the dairy industry making a concerted effort to speak out.
“Organizations like Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) have a social media team who push relevant content out to a larger group of producers to share on social media that’s getting really great reach,” he said. “We have individuals on Facebook and Twitter, and that group is expanding every day.”
Fair Oaks Farm Adventure, which started out in 1998 as Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure, is hosting more than 500,000 people annually just 60 miles south of Chicago. Dr. Jones was one of the designers of the Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure, adding about 10,000 dairy cows into the Rensselaer, Indiana, community, and at first, the community wasn’t very happy about it.
“Once we opened the Dairy Adventure, amazingly, the community did a 180ᵒ turn. Now when someone visits they say ‘Let’s go over to our dairy farm, and I’ll show you a calf being born. ’ll show you how they dairy and how they have a nutritionist on staff that takes care of their cows. These cows have sand beds and wonderfully balanced diets.’,” he said. “I lived in the community for six years, and I loved watching the transformation.”
Are Consumer Changes Sustainable?
From a macro sense Dr. Jones says yes, consumers want to do to what’s right for the planet which generally means lowering our carbon footprint. However, from a micro level, Dr. Jones said some consumer demands like pushing cheese and milk processors to ban bovine somatotropin (bST) has done exactly the opposite.
“We’ve increased the carbon footprint of milk production by banning bST,” he said. “The milk lost from the ban of bST means we need as many cows as the state of Iowa has, now more, to make the same amount of milk. We’ve taken away a size neutral technology from our dairymen, and there’s no science behind the decision. Not everything we do is sustainable.”
Novus C.O.W.S. Program – Challenging Us to Think Differently
The Novus C.O.W.S. Program is a comprehensive on-farm assessment program offered to Novus customers aimed at identifying and unlocking bottlenecks, optimizing cow comfort and well-being, and improving productivity, efficiency and contributing to sustainability.
Novus partnered with The University of British Columbia to create benchmarks for cow-based measures like lying time, hock and knee injuries and lameness. Facility and management based measures are stall design, bedding quality, packing density, time away from feed, water and bedding, to name a few. These readings create a farm assessment benchmark that a dairyman can then compare relative to others in his region and state.
“Simply put, our goal is to find lost milk. Dairymen are so used to seeing their own dairy that often they get farm-blind, and the abnormal becomes normal,” said Dr. Jones.“The C.O.W.S. Program is a wonderful way to start a discussion because to manage anything, you have to measure it.”
The Novus C.O.W.S. team does an initial assessment of a dairy’s facility, then they give talking points back to the dairymen.
“They create a teachable moment for the nutritionist, the veterinarian and the on-farm advisors to have with the dairyman to benchmark his cows compared to a regional benchmark,” he said. “It allows a conversation to start about how can we all make things more comfortable on a cow level.”
Milk isn’t only lost at the cow level. It’s also often through facilities management. Cows need 20 hours of time a day, in their free stall to eat, drink and rest. Anything that reduces that amount of time reduces their amount of intake, resulting in reduced performance. Stall design, bedding quality, stocking density, time to and from the parlor, distance traveled, walkways, etc. offer a wealth of information to the dairyman and are an opportunity for the team discuss and seek solutions.
“It’s a win for the dairymen profit-wise, and it’s a win for the cow from a welfare and cow comfort standpoint,” he said. “There’s a direct relationship between what we do to make a cow more comfortable and her productivity. She’ll give 3.7 pounds more milk if she lays down for one hour longer per day. If we make the bed more comfortable, she lays down longer, she lasts longer, she has fewer feet and leg injuries, and she gives us more milk. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Consumer Messages for C.O.W.S. Program
“The C.O.W.S. Program has increased the welfare of cows,” Dr. Jones said. “Through meetings, social media and articles like this, Novus needs to get the word out about what an individual C.O.W.S. assessment can do for a dairy and for the cows. The cow comfort increases, dairy sustainability increases, global greenhouse gasses decrease, dairy carbon footprints decrease. These messages need to reach consumers.”
More than 1,000 dairy producers have participated in the C.O.W.S. program, so far.
“If all those producers shared their sustainable practices through social media, that could be very, very powerful for our industry,” Dr. Jones concluded.