The public often hears in the media and from special interest groups that animals are housed in poor conditions, treated poorly and forced to perform at high levels. But what do consumers think after they’ve toured a modern, and in some cases very large, dairy farm?
Not what the media sometimes presents or what some special interest groups want people to believe. In general, 95% of consumers leave with a positive or very positive impression about animal housing, and 91% to 96% have high or very high trust that 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 educational farm tours, involving dairy farms ranging from 200 to 3,500 cows in Michigan, Ohio and Vermont.
These events include tours of the farm facilities with educational stations about numerous topics that are of interest to the public. Volunteers, including veterinarians, nutritionists, farmers and other professionals, 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 BOTF, a Michigan State University Extension program, 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 BOTF events.
Farm tours improve impressions
Michigan BOTF 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 visitors’ impressions about how dairy cows are housed before and after their educational farm tour. Herd sizes for these farms ranged from 200 to 3,500 milking cows. Herd size did not affect responses.
The percentage of farm tour participants who rated their impression of dairy housing as positive or very positive shifted from 62% before the tour to 95% after the farm tour. They did this rating as part of a survey completed upon exiting the farm, so participants’ before assessments were done at the same time as their after assessments. This allowed them to indicate their change in impressions on the same scale. The percentage 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.
In this data set, 17 of 31 who rated housing very negative before their tour rated housing very positive after the tour suggesting that they came with misconceptions of how dairy animals are housed on modern farms.
First-time visitors, numbering 610, 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 first-time visitors, only 0.2% and 0.7% left with very negative and negative impressions, respectively.
Events in 2015 show increased trust in animal care and housing
In 2015, events held in Ohio hosted by Ohio State University Extension and Vermont, coordinated by Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and others 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 Michigan, Ohio and Vermont.
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 five or less prior visits included 73% in Michigan, 88% in Ohio and 62% in Vermont. Data from Michigan, Ohio and Vermont 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 thing
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 Michigan, 72% for Ohio and 66% for Vermont before the tour to 96% for Michigan, 92% for Ohio, and 92% for Vermont after their tour.
As with earlier results, first-timer visitors’ level of trust was lower than for all participants before their tour with values of 61%, 65% and 65% for Michigan, Ohio and Vermont, respectively, with high or very high trust. Based upon their assessment as they exited, 96% in Michigan, 91% in Ohio, and 96% in Vermont 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.
Once consumers saw and understood how animals benefited from modern housing their trust that farmers would make the right decisions regarding housing their animals significantly improved. One individual from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals commented to a volunteer at the exit survey tent at an event in Mason County, Michigan, 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.
Change in trust that dairy farmers caring for 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 first-time visitors in Michigan, 74% of all and 68% of first-timers in Ohio and 68% of all and 61% of first-timers in Vermont had a high or very high levels of trust before their tour. Their assessments increased to 96% for all and 96% for first-timers in Michigan, 94% for all and 92% for first-timers in Ohio and 91% for all and 94% for first-timers in Vermont leaving with high or very high trust that farmers will do right with regard the care of dairy animals.
Consumers benefit from educational farm tours
The opportunity to openly walk on a modern farm, talk to farmers and others involved in the dairy industry and to see, read and hear 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. This is even more so for those who came with concerns. From the educational displays and talking to volunteers, participants learn about the care given to animals including balanced rations, health care and how professional nutritionists and veterinarians are involved on farms.
This transparency has an impact even with operations that have as many as 3,500 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. As do other visitors, they appreciate the opportunity to walk through host farms and appreciate the hard work to produce safe food and care for animals.
BOTF participants get a sense that animals are receiving good care from farmers and they apparently like the way cows are housed as they give high marks with their shift in impressions and trust in animal care and housing. These shifts in impressions and trust speak well of the educational farm tour approach to helping consumers better understand how their food is produced and to the farmers who graciously open their doors to provide a transparent look at modern agriculture.