Dr. Ted Ferris, Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI; Dr. Julie Smith, Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT; and Mr. Eric Richer, Ohio State University Extension, Fulton County
What do consumers really think about how dairy farmers care for dairy cows and modern dairy cow housing once they’ve been down on the farm?
Not what the media sometimes presents or what some special interest groups want people to believe! The public hears in the media and from special interest groups that animals are housed in poor conditions and treated poorly (forced to perform at high levels). So what do consumers think after they’ve toured a modern, and in some cases, very large modern dairy farms? In general, over 90% leave with a positive or very positive impression about animal housing and 90-95% have high or very high trust the dairy farmers will do the right things with regard to caring for their animals. These values represent a large shift from their assessment before their farm visits, especially for those visiting dairy farms for the first time in 20 years.
These values come from exit surveys from individuals participating in Breakfast on the Farm (BOTF) educational farm tours involving dairy farms ranging from 200 to 3,500 cows in Michigan, Ohio and Vermont. These tours are educational farm tours that involve a tour route through the farm facilities with educational stations on information about numerous topics that are of interest to the public. The stations include educational signs, and volunteers including veterinarians, nutritionist, farmers and other professionals who try to answer questions for participants. Exit surveys from events in three states show that consumers are giving high ratings for animal care and dairy housing. Since its inception in 2009, Michigan’s Breakfast on the Farm, coordinated by MSU Extension, has held events on 29 dairy farms, three beef operations, one apple orchard, and three crop farms. These events have hosted over 85,000 visitors. Ontario has hosted several events patterned after the Michigan events and in 2015, both Ohio and Vermont began hosting Breakfast on the Farm events.
Early Michigan events show farm tours greatly improve impressions
Breakfast on the Farm events were held on 10 dairy farms in 2010 and 2011 with over 16,000 in attendance. Data from 1,500 exit surveys show a large shift in their impressions about how dairy cows are housed BEFORE and AFTER their educational farm tour. Figure 1 shows the shift in distribution BEFORE and AFTER their farm tour on a 5-point scale with 1 being very negative to 5 being very positive impression. Herd sizes for these farms ranged from 200 to 3,500 milking cows. No real differences occurred between farms with different sized herds.
Figure 1. Shift in the public’s general impression about housing provided to dairy cows BEFORE and AFTER their farm tour.
The percent of farm tour participants that rated their impression of dairy housing as positive or very positive shifted from 62% before the tour to 95% after the farm tour (Figure 1). They did this rating as they completed a survey upon exiting the farm, so their before assessment was done at the same time as their after assessment.This allowed them to indicate their change in impressions on the same scale. The percent that rated their impression of housing as very positive doubled from 35% to 76% and the 8% who rated housing negative or very negative before their visit dropped to 0.5% negative and 0.1% very negative after the tour. Interestingly, in this dataset, 17 of 31 who rated housing very negative before their tour rated housing very positive after the tour, suggesting that they came with misconceived concepts of how dairy animals are housed on modern farms.
First-time visitors (n= 610), those who had not been on a working dairy farm in the past 20 years, had a larger shift, from 26 to 76% with very positive impressions, while only 49% had a positive and very positive impression before. This resulted in 93% leaving with positive and very positive impressions. Of the 1st-time visitors, only 0.2 and 0.7% left with very negative and negative impressions, respectively.
Events in 2015
In 2015, events held in Ohio hosted by Ohio State University Extension and Vermont, hosted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets attracted 3,009 and 550 participants, respectively at dairy farms with 700 cows and 250 cows, respectively. Five Michigan events in 2015 included dairy farms ranging from 500 to 3,500 cows hosting 12,068 participants. BOTF is designed to attract those who have not been on farms recently. The percentage making their first visit to a working dairy farm in the past 20 years were 37, 60, and 25%, respectively for MI, OH and VT. In 2010, Michigan first time visits were 44% of the total. Since then, a number of participants have returned to events.Vermont has a number of educational farms that individuals may have visited, making their number a bit lower.Those who had made 5 or less prior visits included 73% in MI, 88% in OH, and 62% in VT. Data from MI, OH, and VT included 1406, 578 and 220 surveys, respectively, and were analyzed to determine the change in participants’ level of trust in several management areas. We focus here on animal housing and care.
Trust that farmers will do right
Exit surveys from participants in the 2015 events show that their level of trust that producers will do the right thing with regard to providing good housing for dairy animals increased significantly! On a 5-point scale, from 1 being very low trust to 5 being very high trust, those who rated their level of trust as high or very high, i.e., a 4 or 5, increased from 74% for MI, 72% for OH, and 66% for VT before the tour to 96% for MI, 92% for OH, and 92% for VT after their tour.
As with earlier results, 1st-timer visitors’ level of trust was lower than for all participants before their tour with values of 61, 65, and 65% for MI, OH, and VT, respectively, with high or very high trust. Based upon their assessment as they exited, 96% in MI, 91% in OH, and 96% in VT, left with high or very high trust. In all three states, about 30% were undecided or neutral about their level of trust before their visit. Few left with low or very low trust that farmers will do the right thing regarding animal housing, i.e., values dropped from 8.6 to 0.6%, 8.5 to 1.3% and 4 to 2% for MI, OH and VT, respectively.
Once consumers saw and understood how animals benefited from modern housing they apparently approved and trusted that farmers would make the right decisions regarding housing their animals. One individual from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) commented to a volunteer at the exit survey tent at a Michigan event in Mason County, that they were going to tell their membership that the cows they saw were clean and well cared for on this dairy farm. Not what they expected.
So what kind of housing do consumers find down on the farm?
They don’t see a red barn and vertical silos from the past, which are on some milk cartons and jugs. They experience a cool, well-ventilated open-air barn with curtain walls that go up during the summer months, making them especially comfortable on hot, sunny days and down in the winter months to block the wind and snow (Figure 2). They see housing that is well-managed to protect animals from wind, rain, snow, and mud. Maybe some day, we will learn to put a different photo on milk containers.
Figure 2. A well-ventilated open-air curtain wall freestall dairy barn where cows roam and have free access to a mixed well-balanced diet.
Cows do better in freestalls because they have free access to a total mixed and well-balanced ration, clean, dry stalls, and outstanding shelter, far better than our old tiestalls or stantions in the red barn of the 50’s or the bedded packs of the 60’s. Walking through housing systems used on well-managed modern dairy farms provides an experience you can’t get in the newspaper or on the internet.
Change in trust that dairy farmers are caring for their animals
Consumers have concerns about animal care. When asked to rate their level of trust that dairy farmers will do the right thing with regard to caring for food-producing animals, 77% of all and 66% of 1st-time visitors in MI, 74% of all and 68% of 1st-timers in OH and 68% of all and 61% of 1st-timers in VT had a high or very high levels of trust before their tour. Their assessments increased to 96% for all and 96% for 1st-timers in MI, 94% for all and 92% for 1st-timers in OH, and 91% for all and 94% for 1st-timers in VT, leaving with high or very high trust that farmers will do right with regard the care of dairy animals.
Some came with concerns!!
Seventeen percent in MI and 28% in OH indicated that they came with concerns about current food production methods. Their change in trust was greater than those who didn’t indicate that they came with this concern. A comparison in the mean level of trust on the 5-point scale, showed that MI participants’ increased in level of trust in animal care was 0.73 vs. 0.43 for those with and without concerns about modern food production methods, respectively. The increase in trust in animal housing was 0.81 for those with concerns and 0.50 for those without concerns. For OH, the increase in trust for those with concerns vs. those without concerns was 0.73 and 0.46 for animal care and 0.76 and 0.45 for housing, respectively.
The opportunity to openly walk on a modern farm, talk to farmers and others involved in the dairy industry, and to see and read about the advantages of modern animal housing and steps that farmers take in caring for their animals creates a significant shift in participants impressions and trust, even for those who come with concerns.
Consumers are bombarded with many messages about their food, from how unhealthy it is to how poorly it is produced in the U.S. When they get a chance to experience an operating dairy farm, their trust in how dairy farmers house and care for their animals goes up substantially, particularly for those who are visiting a working dairy farm for the first time in recent years. Seeing housing systems being used on modern, well-managed dairy farms provides an experience you can’t get in the newspaper or on the internet. Once people see how animals are actually housed and cared for on a typical dairy farm, they get the sense that animals are receiving good care from farmers. They like the way cows are housed and cared for. Participants are very thankful to the farmers who open their doors, they appreciate the hard work to produce safe food and care for animals. They are giving high marks for housing and animal care and they buy more dairy products and tell others about their positive experience touring a dairy farm. The shifts in impressions and trust speak well of the educational farm tour approach to helping consumers better appreciate how their food is produced and to the farmers who graciously open their doors to provide a very transparent look at modern agriculture. One primary reason for increased trust is that the public can see how the animals are housed and fed. From the educational displays and talking to volunteers, they learn about the care given to animals and to balancing rations, and how professional nutritionists and veterinarians are involved on farms. They also appreciate the opportunity to walk through host farms. This transparency has an impact even with operations with 3500 milking cows. Participants also see the community support from the 200 to 400 volunteers. This overwhelms some participants, as does the number of people attending the breakfast. Some neighbors come to see how things are done because of concern or comments they have heard about agriculture’s impact on the environment. They learn how farmers are working hard to protect the land and the environment, not that everything is perfect. As for negative comments, there are very few. In summary, educational farm tours allow for transparency, personal observations, education and conversations! If you are wondering how you can have an impact on the publics’ trust, open your doors and provide consumers an opportunity to learn how you do things on your farm. And finally, we should thank those farm families that have opened their farms to the public!!! As Tim Hood, a Michigan Breakfast on the Farm host put it; “It just irks me to think that someone could be driving by my farm and thinking we don't take care of our animals. They have read, heard or even seen on TV animal mistreatment on farms. They assume that all animals kept in buildings are unhappy or mistreated. I believe that is part of the reason they like to see animals outside.”