Despite the storyline from groups opposed to animal agriculture that cows are exploited for the almighty dollar, there should be no shame for farmers in making money. Businesses aren’t businesses for very long if they don’t.
But, I will also say this: Dairy farming is so much more than a business. Farmers know this, of course. And, of all the unique aspects of farm life is the incredible responsibility of caring for animals. The health and comfort of those cows come first. Veterinarians, nutritionists, state-of-the-art facilities — everything centers on the animals’ well-being. The farm starts and ends with the cows.
Sometimes, though, farmers struggle to frame their conversations about cow care. In my communications role at DBA, I have heard farmers sometimes describe it this way to people unfamiliar with dairy farming: “We keep our cows happy and healthy because we rely on them for our livelihood. The happier they are, the more milk they produce, and more milk means more revenue.”
While the money part is accurate, it turns off the audience. What a customer with no connection to agriculture might hear is this: “We need to maximize profits, and that comes from maximizing the amount of milk each animal produces. If they help us, we’ll help them.”
The treatment of cows is an ethical issue — not a business decision — for the typical customer, who sees farm animals and companion pets through a similar lens, Stan Erwine of Dairy Management Inc. told me.
“As farmers, we need to remember we’re not talking to each other. We are talking to people who consume what we produce,” Erwine, vice president of farmer activation at DMI, said.
I’ve written before about how important it is for the dairy community to connect with non-ag folks on shared values. Proper care of animals is one of those values.
Customers want to know that dairy farmers are doing everything they can for the good of the cows because, first and foremost, it’s the humane thing to do. A nutritious diet, good medical care and healthy living conditions provide for this. It comes from respect farmers have for their animals and the goal of providing safe and wholesome milk.
Yes, making money by farming with cows is a good thing. Just make sure customers understand your greater motivations.