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Dairy farmers need to do more than just tell their story

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 06 February 2018

When dairy farmers tell their stories of animal care and well-being to the public, there are a few things to consider to make sure those messages don’t fall on deaf ears.

Beth Ventura, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, explained during the 2017 Vita Plus Dairy Summit held in Madison, Wisconsin, how perspectives rooted in both social science and animal welfare provide keys to productive conversations with consumers.

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Dairy farmers and consumers may have differing opinions of what animal welfare for dairy cows means, but by understanding the basics of effective communication, some common ground can be achieved.

Understanding the target audience

Communication research identifies two basic parties: the speaker and the listener. In this case, dairy farmers and industry experts are the shareholders that serve as speakers, while consumers are the listeners.

The human tendency for the listener is to incorporate ideas that fit into their worldview, which is based on experiences, values and beliefs; however, when that worldview feels threatened, the listener cannot receive communication. This is why framing the message to resonate with the worldviews of the audience can be a game-changer, according to Ventura.

Start with shared values

Understanding those perspectives starts with finding shared values. According to Ventura, people view dairy cattle welfare in three overlapping ways: body, feelings and nature. Some may emphasize bodily health, as it relates to providing proper nutrition and hygiene, and preventing disease or injury. Dairy farmers may believe a cow is well taken care of if it can produce high volumes of milk.

Consumers may place more emphasis on how the cow feels. Does it suffer from pain? Is it in a comfortable environment, free from stress and fear? And yet another dimension of beliefs focuses on the cow’s ability to live in a natural state, with opportunities for socialization, grazing and lying down.

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Ventura noted both producers and consumers share the values of good animal health and pain avoidance, thus making these points key in effective messaging. An area that provides the most opportunity for creativity and listening on the behalf of dairy farmers is natural living.

Transparency is critical

Transparency is the next step in establishing trust and engaging the public. “Closing the barn doors will backfire,” Ventura warned. Take, for example, the “ag-gag” laws in some states that were designed to curtail undercover animal activists’ efforts.

A consumer survey revealed awareness of such regulations erodes trust in farmers and increases support for animal welfare regulations. “Any strategy that seems to reduce transparency is enough to diminish trust,” she said.

Ventura pointed out, however, that while public engagement is important for moving forward, research shows telling our story will not fully resolve concerns about farming. “Relying on education alone is not successful,” she said. “We are starting to gain evidence that education can backfire.”

A survey of visitors to the University of British Columbia research dairy farm evaluated people’s perceptions or concerns about animal welfare before and after a dairy farm tour. Of 50 participants, nearly three-quarters shared concerns about bodily health before the tour, feeling strongly that farm animals should be protected from pain.

Generally, they wanted cows to be healthy and clean and able to exhibit natural behaviors like accessing the outdoors. After an hour of touring and asking questions, about a quarter reported their perception of dairy animal welfare improved, roughly a third became more critical of dairy farming, and the remaining 44 percent did not change their thoughts.

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Touring the farm and asking questions gave some visitors the chance to learn of practices they didn’t like, such as pulling calves away from their mothers after birth or cows not living their lives on pasture. Ventura explained that the tour did not validate the “nature” value for this group. “So education was successful for one group, but it backfired for another,” she said.

Be adaptive

The take-home message from this survey: Simply telling your story is not enough because the consumer group is segmented. For more effective consumer engagement, Ventura recommended committing to adaptive transparency, accompanied by the willingness to listen to others’ concerns, even when both parties do not agree on them. She also said investment is needed to research communication techniques further.

Ultimately, Ventura encouraged dairy farmers to understand their target audience, start conversations with shared values, strive for transparency and be adaptive.

She noted, “We must first understand our target audience’s perspective before we can ever hope to persuade them to ours.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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