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0708 PD: Why do consumers care what happens on your dairy?

Keith Carlson Published on 25 April 2008

The consumer bill of rights declares, “I have the right for anything I want.”

This doesn’t seem fair to dairymen, but it’s true. Since consumers are buying your milk, you are under the command of the consumer. But back to our question: Why do consumers care what happens on your dairy? Because your milk and dairy beef markets listen to their customers – that’s why.

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The modern progressive dairyman knows that quality includes more than taste, nutrition and safety. The food industry has a new definition for quality. It still includes the three items noted. But now, quality also includes:

• impact on the environment
• use of labor
• treatment of dairy animals
• health of dairy animals

None of these four items can be measured in the actual milk. So, somehow, your milk consumers need to find out how you produced their food, and the retail market is going to tell them how you produced their food. Unfortunately, groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will tell the consumer how your food is produced if you don’t. Remember last winter when they provided national television news with clandestine videos of “typical” dairy cows being abused on the way to market?

Any dairy care message to consumers needs to be concise, believable and timely. A discussion of each will help us understand why consumers care.

A concise message has a better chance to make it through the food buyer’s busy schedule. Your message will be obtained from the quick-serve outlet, or the supermarket, via the dairy suppliers in the food system.

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This means that your message will be third- or fourth-hand information when it reaches the consumer. A concise message from your dairy can make it through the clutter far more accurately than a long, drawn-out message.

Your concise animal care message needs to reflect emotion – forget the science. You need to base your animal care on science, but you need to turn your story into a caring message, one showing emotion (heart) when talking to consumers. For example, you may follow NRC guidelines to determine how much phosphorus to put in the ration for your lactating cows. You or your nutritionist must make sure the content of the TMR is .4 percent. This is not the message for your customers.

Your consumer message is that you carefully protect the ground water by using great care to feed your animals to meet their needs to be healthy animals and produce nutritious milk.

Secondly, the people that purchase your milk and the companies that move your milk up the food chain want a believable message. Food consumers trust milk producers, and they trust your veterinarian. To believe your message, they want you and your veterinarian involved.

To assemble a believable animal care message, you are relying on the consumer’s fond memories of their grandfather’s farm, the toys they played with as a kid, and the first songs they learned (i.e., Old MacDonald).

Consumers probably know that farming is hard work, sometimes dirty, full of risks and maybe lonely. If the caring message comes from you, it’s easy to believe. That’s why dairy breakfasts, open houses, school visits, newspaper stories, etc., are successful.

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Why your veterinarian? Many of our urban and city friends have a first-person relationship with their veterinarian through their pets, and most pets are thought of as part of a consumer’s family. Veterinarians have the industry’s most extensive animal care training, a state license and a code of ethics. Blending their opinions into your message is critical if it is to be believable. Consumers want the veterinarians to be central to your animal care – the closer, the better. Your consumers believe healthy animals produce the best food. Consumers want the herd veterinarian to be part of the message.

This relationship starts with a valid client-patient relationship. (Your veterinarian will call this a VCPR.) It is required by law to prescribe prescription drugs, and it is the basis of the public’s trust in the veterinarian profession. Your veterinarian’s oversight of animal care is critical to having a valid message for your milk and dairy-beef handler to pass on to the consumer. Another aspect of trust is working with a veterinarian who knows your operation, is aware of your management practices, is available to help you improve, provides consultation and verifies your herd-heath plan.

When you express your animals’ care in emotional terms, you automatically protect your business and management practices. This keeps the process of verifying animal care from intruding in your business and protects your privacy.

The DQA Five-Star initiative – America’s Dairy Quality Assurance Program – has been successful in garnering wide support for its standards and guidelines (Caring for Dairy Animals Technical Reference Guide is available at dqacenter.org). More than 40 companies, food associations, and dairy organizations believe in the standards included in the technical reference guide.

The DQA Five-Star message to consumers is founded in and on these standards. The oversight or proof provided by the DQA auditor easily creates a friendly consumer message.

The concept “food marketers have the power” was introduced at the beginning of this message. Food companies decide how often the verification should be done. Some food companies inspect food manufacturing plants several times per year.

The DQA program has been successful by encouraging annual farm verification. We have no reason to-date to expect more frequent reviews. The DQA center’s guidelines are practical and have been endorsed by the Food Marketing Institute (the nation’s supermarkets) and the National Council of Chain Restaurants (quick-serve food restaurants).

Building your milk and dairy beef business to fit the consumer’s oversight and standards is good business. I encourage you to provide the proof the consumer desires. PD

Keith Carlson
Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center
Executive Director

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