Stop saying farm animals are our friends

As the American public increasingly becomes further removed from the farm, expectations of livestock and poultry production increasingly become more unrealistic.

However, the agriculture and food industries are partly to blame for those inaccurate perceptions, said Frank Mitloehner, PhD, professor and air quality extension specialist, University of California-Davis (UC-Davis).

Mitloehner, speaking at the 2018 Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit, used the city in which he works as an example. While UC-Davis is renowned as a strong agricultural school, most who live in Davis or who are enrolled at the university have a very limited knowledge of animal agriculture.

Frank Mitloehner, PhD | Photo by Roy Graber

To many, 20 cattle on a farm is “pushing it,” and “50 cattle is a factory farm.” A farm that has 200 chickens is “unacceptable” in their minds, Mitloehner said.

This same segment of the population also thinks of pets as part of the family.

“That’s the association most millennials have with animals,” Mitloehner said.

But, often, those in the agriculture industry encourage this mindset, rather than set the record straight, he said.

“We in animal agriculture feed into that notion by depicting our cows as happy cows, talking to each other and making fun of each other. We depict them in the background with red barns, standing on pasture,” he said.

“If you were to ask me what needs to change today, or tomorrow at latest, we need to change humanizing livestock. They are not humans. They are animals. Sooner or later we will eat them. Don’t tell the 20-year-olds they are our friends. They are not. We are sending out the wrong message, in my opinion.”

Wise words

Mitloehner is right.

Sure, we want the public to know farmers care about our animals and care for them. Nearly all of them do both.

But at the end of the day, we in animal agriculture know that protein is an integral part of a healthy human diet, and animals provide that protein. We also know that people in general like the taste of chicken, turkey, eggs, pork, beef and dairy products.

One example I see of how livestock is often viewed can be seen at county fairs.

Watch the 4-H kids as they are selling their animals at the premium auction near the end of the fair. The youngest kids will be crying, as they have bonded with their steer, pig or sheep, and don’t want to see it leave their care. But the older ones, while they have also built a bond with their show animals, display much less sadness, because they have had more time to understand the process and know selling the animal is part of the process. They understand that they will get their premium check, and they will use some of those funds for the purchase of next year’s exhibition animals.

That doesn’t mean the animals don’t bring us joy when they are on the farm, nor does it mean that they don’t have enjoyable times themselves. It just means things are kept in perspective.

If only the general public had the agricultural wisdom of a 13-year-old 4-H member.

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