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MORE THAN A FAD
ADDRESSING ANIMAL WELFARE ISSUES HELPS COMPANY REACH WESTERN PRODUCERS
In an era when 4-H and FFA livestock show participants are cautioned to keep watch for animal-loving photographers who may be animal rights activists, it's little wonder animal welfare issues raise producers' eyebrows. Even sound, science-based animal husbandry practices can become fodder for activist agendas. Improper handling can create a firestorm of negative publicity and baseless regulatory action. Just ask a public affairs staffer at a dairy or beef trade organization about the recent downer animal situation.

Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc.'s (BIVI) cattle marketing team, with the assistance of NKH&W Marketing Communications, addressed animal welfare issues at the 2004 World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif. The BIVI-sponsored dairy profit seminar, Animal Husbandry for the Next Century, featured three animal welfare and handling specialists and a moderator who incorporates and promotes the use of science-based handling practices in her own beef operation.

Patsy Houghton, president of Heartland Cattle Company, McCook, Neb.
Patsy Houghton, president of Heartland Cattle Company in McCook, Neb., moderated the presentations. Presenters were Janice Swanson, animal science professor at Kansas State University and member of several restaurant corporation animal welfare boards; John Fiscalini, owner of Fiscalini Farms and Fiscalini Cheese in Modesto, Calif.; and Jim Reynolds, DVM and author of several handling guides, with the Veterinary Medicine Research and Teaching Center, University of California - Davis in Fresno, Calif.

"Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. has long supported Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) protocols. All recently introduced cattle vaccines fit BQA guidelines, and product development hinges on inclusion of this product feature," says Wayne Cole, cattle marketing manager. "The BIVI sales force and technical services veterinarians recognize the importance of BQA and encourage producers to follow all guidelines. This seminar and related activities strengthens that message by helping producers supply the best milk and beef possible."

THE TIME IS NOW

Timing for events like this couldn't be more valuable, according to Ria de Grassi, director of livestock, animal health and welfare for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"Veterinarians and others who work with producers need a strong knowledge base on handling and welfare issues so they can advise clients responsibly," she says. "The animal welfare/any rights debate is far from over, and producers can become confused. There are many opportunities to help them with their handling skills since they consider sales representatives as good information sources. It adds substantial value to the product or service being sold."

That in mind, the BIVI and NKH&W teams initiated invitations to the seminar using personal letters signed by Cole targeting producers in the western United States. Sponsored editorial support, paid advertising and booth promotion netted a full house for the event.

Fiscalini, who milks 1,400 Holsteins three times a day and runs a cheese company making more than 8,000 pounds of cheese a week, says animal care is an issue equal to or greater than food safety.

"Animal welfare and related issues are more than a fad," he says. "Companies and veterinarians need to help producers be better animal stewards and show there are economic values in doing so."

Fiscalini puts his money where his mouth is. His dairy is certified as a humane operation and was recently the first dairy to be certified by Environmental Management Solutions for its Animal Welfare Assurance and Review Evaluation program. He says certifications such as these open up market opportunities for his milk and his cheese with processors and retailers he wouldn't have otherwise.

"We have two generations of Americans who have never lived on a farm nor have any ties to food production," Fiscalini adds. "The third generation is well on its way. They have absolutely no concept of food production, including the facilities and management required to produce it. In many cases, people don't even understand that animals produce a lot of our food. These same consumers tell us they're interested in health issues, environmental issues and animal issues. Yet, they don't know where to get the right information. Often, they rely upon incorrect sources."

Swanson cites societal changes such as these as reasons why marketers should promote science-based animal welfare and handling.

Janice Swanson, animal science professor at Kansas State University
"We're looking at ethical criteria that are superimposed over scientific reasoning," she says. "Society has certain expectations on how animals are to be handled. These expectations are layered over the production industry from producers to plant workers. These criteria aren't new, nor should anyone be surprised they've changed. Societal expectations change over time and always have. Certain moral norms will also change. This is true of any culture.

"Our own industry isn't immune. Technology has changed us, and livestock production has changed as technology has improved. Socially and culturally, we change our expectations based on what we know, experience and have been exposed to," Swanson says. "It's not going away. Consider what we're going through now with genetic and related discoveries. We have to consider the potential for good and the potential for misuse of any technology that arises from these findings before we determine if we can apply the technology to production."

Swanson says it's critical marketers take these things into account when developing long-term marketing communications plans.

"Promoting animal care is part and parcel of what companies should do. There is no industry if there is no animal. The quality of life animals experience has a direct impact on the livelihood of an industry from consumer and producer perspectives," she says.

It also has a direct effect on costs that impact customers' bottom lines. Safety, for one.

Houghton says proper animal handling relates directly to employee safety, which is another way to approach customers about handling issues. In 14 years of operation, Houghton hasn't filed a single workers compensation claim from any of her three locations. She attributes this to training, top-notch employees and using proven handling practices.

ENCOURAGING PRODUCERS

Swanson adds that companies need to reinforce improved customer practices their sales representatives observe. Opportunities to educate and demonstrate proven protocols crop up with veterinarians, processors, livestock market operators, truckers and others in the chain.

The rewards at the end are not just monetary but that society continues to accept what producers do for a living, because ultimately, it's society that keeps them and agrimarketers in business.

"Several beef alliances are developing tools so they can conduct primary and secondary assessments of member operations and use them to improve cattle in their respective marketing group," Swanson says. "They'll continually have to modify and improve these as they go along to be able to meet evolving retailer requirements. The benefit is that, if producers are periodically audited, handling awareness levels remain high and they can continue communicating to retailers that animals are handled with the best science-based and defendable techniques."

DEMAND IS REAL

There's little shyness among producers about wanting to learn more about handling, says Houghton.

"Our crews go through intensive five-week handling classes," she says. "Experts work with staff as a group and individually. They even videotape staff handling the cattle, then view the tapes with employees while demonstrating how they can improve and handle cattle more quietly. Customers often ask how they can be involved in these seminars."

Houghton, co-chairman of Cattlemen's College, a National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) program, says she hopes some of the need can be met by NCBA, but there's room for others to help.

FITS THE PLAN

BIVI's initial foray into the animal handling arena is netting dividends, some similar to those producers experience when they improve procedures.

"Customer response to the seminar has been most favorable," Cole says. "It continues to extend the message that the cattle team wants to help customers improve profitability. We've built new industry allies and strengthened relationships with existing ones. Finally, this activity has given us insight into how we can add value to selling, something all customers expect now." AM

Rick Purnell is owner of RPR Company, a PR firm headquartered in Palm Springs, Calif.


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