Council panel looks ahead to the future of livestock industry
By Kylene Scott
“The future obviously holds a lot of unpredictability,” Tyler Chafee, senior vice president for Strategies 360, said.
Chafee was one of four panelists during the Colorado Livestock Association’s Council meeting held during the Protein Producer Summit mid-June in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Each described what they thought the future of the livestock industry looked like in the state as well as the rest of the country.
Chafee has varying expertise outside of agriculture, mostly in marketing and politics, and he is able to point livestock producers and their subsequent organizations in the right direction. After efforts of animal rights groups trying to get a ballot initiative in the state of Colorado, he said producers need to be prepared. So far, livestock groups have won.
“We believe they will come back, and when a ballot initiative or some sort of political attack starts, you have to go to war with the army you’ve got,” Chafee said. “Now we have some time to do some building to anticipate for the next round.”
By planning for future attacks by such groups, the financial burden can be lessened. Plus the importance of agriculture in the future and for future generations needs to be realized.
“What I’m asking you do to do today is to start by picturing your legacy,” Chafee said. “Obviously this is an important part of being a protein producer and is an important part of America’s legacy and America’s future, but I think personally these battles that we talk about are really about your legacy and what the future holds.”
Scare tactics or misinformed propaganda coming from some companies about how American agriculture works, often drive the point home to uninformed consumers, Chafee said.
“It’s highly effective at scaring your consumer base, who also doubles as a voter base,” Chafee said. “You just can’t think about folks who are looking at these messages as consumers who are digesting the latest pink slime scandal that they see or what they perceive in the news.”
Farmers and ranchers have an opportunity to be open right now because of how information is exchanged, but that openness can be scary simply because of how agriculture and livestock industries work. Seeing it through an uninitiated eye is very different.
“We can’t be afraid of that. We have to find ways to portray that and get that information out there to fill in the blanks about where food comes from so that it is done in a positive light,” Chafee said. “Every day that it is not portrayed and done in the right fashion, that helps illustrate, not just what you do, not just the how you do it, but the motivation. The why you are doing what you’re doing.”
Once the audience’s blanks are filled in, there will be other advertising, other marketing schemes that are meant to take on agriculture but will fall on deaf ears.
“The movement of all this information helps us as much as it hurts us, because we can put those who want to launch a political attack on the ropes just as quickly as they can put us on the ropes,” Chafee said.
Being open and honest, sharing agriculture practices—whether it be farming or a livestock production practice—producers need to share what they are doing.
“We need to get actual practices and what goes into getting food onto the table out there more,” Chafee said. “We need to point it out in our own way, as aggressively as we would any checkoff campaign because that is ultimately what’s it’s going to take to close the gap, to close that fear that has permeated the entire consumer base and the voter base.”
There is a chance for opportunity now, Chafee said, especially if another ballot initiative came along.
“There’s people out there meaning to harm you. It is an information age where this stuff is everywhere,” Chafee said. “There is definitely a narrative and a manner to illustrate why you do what you do so that people buy into why you do what you do. So you are protected from those attacks that are harmful.”
Know your opponents
No stranger to attacks, Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Murphy Brown LLC, has been dealing with the issues created by activists for nearly 25 years.
“Make no mistake about it, their messaging gets traction; otherwise they wouldn’t be growing membership and raising money in the way they do every year and getting on the radar screen of elected officials and the public,” Butler said.
Butler doesn’t see the attacks stopping anytime soon.
“They are not going away,” Butler said. “As aggravating and maddening as it is, we may as well accept the fact we’re in the food production business, particularly the food animal production business, and we’re always going to be out there. Somebody’s always going to be shooting at us. We have to figure out how to live in this world.”
Activism is a business and those groups make a lot of money. How do we deal with that? Butler asked. Take their message away.
“We have to take the oxygen out of their air and we can do that,” Butler said.
Many times activist groups have little to no expertise in an area like agriculture and food production.
“They don’t have any experience raising animals in our case. Many of them don’t know what goes on there,” Butler said. “But they know there’s money to be made and attention to be gathered.”
Once the issue reaches the media, their opportunity to create controversy is often realized.
“They want to disturb people. They want people to buy tomorrow’s paper to see what happened,” Butler said. “And the more controversy, the better for media. That’s just how it works.”
Later, often following a trigger event, politicians become engaged in an issue.
“There’s votes to be had. They jump on issues people seem to be interested in,” Butler said. “Once you get past a significant triggering, the likelihood it will result in legislation or regulation is much higher, and if we can deal with it prior to the triggering event we should because at this point the public has been convinced this is a crisis.”
Eventually it could go through the political process and there’s resolution of some kind. There could be legislation, regulation or the industry makes a change.
“Inform elected officials and show them how you do what you do every day—county commissioners, town council, your legislators, congressmen and senators,” Butler said. “Invite them, go talk to them, don’t be shy about talking to elected officials.”
Butler said the “other side” is in their face all the time, and hearing agriculture’s story is important. He suggests: don’t wait for the tipping point, be prepared and know activists are never going away.
“Support people who understand and are willing to learn about what you do. Oppose people who won’t listen,” Butler said. “And vote. If you don’t vote, and your family doesn’t vote, then you’ve thrown away that opportunity.”
Antibiotics and livestock production often go hand in hand and face a lot of scrutiny. Brian Lubbers, DACVCP, Kansas State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, said from his perspective as an educator there are three issues with antibiotics—resistance, regulations and residues.
“They all have a piece. And they cause regulations that lead to regulations if we don’t take care of business at home with what we do,” Lubbers said.
As much misinformation as there is out there, Lubbers said livestock producers should understand as much as possible about antibiotics and livestock.
“When consumers ask you about these issues, if you don’t understand at least the basics, I think that puts us in a very poor light,” Lubbers said. “If a consumer asks you what do you think about antibiotic resistance, as somebody who is administering antibiotics to livestock which will become food, and your answer is well, ‘I don’t know much about it,’ I don’t think that’s good for our industry.”
Very basically, resistance is a characteristic of bacteria, Lubbers said. It’s a function of a single-celled organism that’s trying to be fought.
“When that bacteria develops resistance, essentially what happens is we lose that ability to treat that infection,” Lubbers said. “It’s the same in veterinarian medicine and it’s the same as it is in human medicine. So how antibiotic resistance relates to us—essentially what we do is, we create a selective pressure.”
So in treating an animal for a disease, say a dairy cow for mastitis, the antibiotics target susceptible bacteria, killing it all off. The population left is the resistant bacteria. It reproduces, and the next time the cow develops clinical mastitis, it’s harder to treat because the bacteria would be resistant to the initial drug used.
“I think we need to think about at some point in the disease process, the antibiotics are no longer useful and the risk benefit of curing the animal and creating resistance now tips in the favor or pushing the resistance sideways. Is it the right antibiotic?” Lubbers said.
The K-State diagnostic lab has resources available to help producers and veterinarians find the appropriate antibiotics for a specific infection. Dosing suggestions could also help.
“As producers, if you’re using any dose that’s not on the label without a veterinarian’s influence, that’s actually an illegal use,” Lubbers said.
A good working relationship with your veterinarian is important, Lubbers said.
As for regulations on drugs used by veterinarians to treat livestock, Lubbers emphasizes the importance of producers being aware of the restrictions.
“We hear a lot of the regulations in the popular press,” he said. “I think it’s really good for you guys to really understand what those regulations mean.”
Lubbers suggested taking care of the primary issues—resistances and residues— on producer’s operations and within the industry.
“The goal would be if we can decrease resistance, then hopefully regulations will become less as we decrease residues regulations less,” Lubbers said. “I think the purpose of this again was to educate you guys so you know the facts about the primary issues and talk to your consumers about these issues.”
Nevil Speer, director of MA Leadership Dynamics Program, Western Kentucky University, ended the lineup of panel speakers. He reminded the audience the marketplace is becoming increasingly fragmented.
“I also think it’s important that we recognize we all fit in these categories in kind of a different way, and we have a portfolio of priorities depending on when we’re buying and what we’re buying for and what have you,” Speer said.
The shopping experience is become even more important. Shopping is a feeling and that just adds to the complexity and compounds issues. In the working environment of agriculture, Speer points out one thing must be understood— food is the most complex business there is.
“It’s also the most fascinating, but it is hugely complex,” Speer said. “And I just told Brian on the side, I think antibiotics is the convergence of that issue.”
Speer has worked to help food production be understood with the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. Helping to revoke labels such as factory or industrial farming as well as misunderstandings with antibiotics has been a priority for him.
“We have to remember our consumers are pretty time-starved. We all are. We make decisions pretty impulsively. We might think we think about it but not really. And with in that, facts get over looked,” Speer said. “It often becomes fairly emotional, and the last thing I think that’s important to remember for us is there’s sort of an erosion of connectiveness the food system out there.”
Consumers ultimately want to be connected to their food, but in reality there is an erosion of the connectiveness because of increased urbanization and the connection to agriculture and “the farm” is decreasing.
“You think about our world today, we don’t have any real direct link like it used to be. Even if you weren’t directly involved with the farm, you had a relative and you could go visit them, and somehow you had some connection,” Speer said. “Now we don’t have that, even close today, and so that happens and that matters.”
Telling the farming and ranching story to consumers is an important one, according to Speer. Consumers want to support farms or producers whose values are similar to their own.
“That’s the good news. That’s what negates everything,” Speer said. “So, if I ask you what are the values that probably most consumers connect with famers, ranchers, rural America? What would it be? Honesty, integrity, hard work, family, family-owned enterprises; that’s the values they want.”
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.