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The Beef Angle

Whose Beef Industry Is It, Anyway?

Whose Beef Industry Is It, Anyway?
The reaction to the "fluffy cows" craze has been both positive and negative, and for good reasons all the way around.

EARLIER in the week, I wrote about the Internet sensation known as “fluffy cows,” otherwise known as show cattle A.I. sires. From my first comments on the online intrigue at my blog, to my interview with fluffy cow marketer Matt Lautner Tuesday, I’ve been getting lots and lots of feedback on this story (my post was even referenced by The Atlantic – neato completo).

To know what people think about this issue, you can picture basically three camps. Well, four if you count my wife, who commented “Some people have too much time on their hands.”

“Which people?” I inquired: “The ones making the cows fluffy,” she replied.

There's no such thing as bad press... right?

Okay, so The Fetching Mrs. Vance notwithstanding, there are basically three reactions to this story among people in my social circle. First are the people who say this is great publicity for agriculture, and who, like the Lautners, are turning the sensation into an opportunity to evangelize about all the great things there are to love about the beef business.

Second, you have the folks who think this is really, really, really bad for the beef business, because the show cattle segment is sort of the dirty little secret, or the seedy underbelly of the beef industry. These folks, including some commercial cattlemen and seedstock producers I really, really respect and admire, have a great point: there are some pretty big differences between show cattle and cattle we breed and feed “for reals” (as the kids say these days).

You can start with the whole hair thing – hair serves no purpose whatsoever in delivering a consumer a wholesome, tasty eating experience. “You can’t eat hair,” my Dad always said when I was a show-jock wannabe lobbying to get another big fan for the barn.

Guess what? Dad was right.

Of this second group of folks, I’ve also had some non-beef folks offer questions and commentary, folks in the dairy industry, for example, asking why we go through all the trouble of fluffing and fitting these creatures instead of judging them on their actual phenotypical merits under all that cloak and adhesive. And they have a point.

Which leads to the third group: the folks who love 4-H and FFA, who love showing cattle, but who think that what wins on the tanbark today is a big disservice to the industry. These are the folks most likely to call for all Junior Fair shows to go slick-sheer or no-fitting.

It’s hard to be someone opposed to the “fluffy cows” craze when the story has been really, really popular in my social circle. As one colleague put it, it’s a fun story, and like the Dodge Ram “So God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad, it got a bunch of people talking about agriculture who otherwise wouldn’t be giving the beef biz a second thought.

(Then again, as Comedy Central proved earlier this week, when it comes to agriculture, there is such a thing as bad press, after all.)

For the beef industry, one of its greatest challenges is also one of its greatest strengths. The cattle industry is the most segmented of any of the major livestock sectors, with cow/calf producers tending to be a much different philosophical "breed" than backgrounders or finishers.

We all have a slightly different set of ideas, priorities, interests and strengths. One thing we have in common, however, is a fierce independence. This has really been on display to me this week in seeing how different folks react to the fluffy cows story.

So back to the question? Whose industry is it, anyway? The answer: it's going to take everyone in the industry to feed 9 billion people by 2050, and it's going to take everyone involved doing the right things and being as transparent as possible to keep consumers feeling comfortable and confident eating their favorite center-of-plate protein.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, for the industry to continue growing and thriving in the face of adverse challenges and well-heeled enemies, it must maintain that independence while understanding that, sometimes, we must sacrifice our own selfish interests in the interest of the greater good for agriculture.

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