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Agritourism operators emphasize safety

Keeping both livestock and guests safe is a priority.

Allison Lund, Indiana Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

April 5, 2024

5 Min Read
 Goats on a gravel path
ANIMALS A PRIORITY: When deciding whether to allow contact with animals on your farm, consider how you can keep both visitors and the livestock safe. Photos by Allison Lund

A panel of agritourism operators at the Indiana Grown symposium reflected on the worst experiences they’ve faced on their farms. One panelist shared that four dogs brought by visitors engaged in a fight on their farm, which led to a fight among the owners. The police were called and the owner of the aggressive dogs fled — and the agritourism operator was left to pick up the pieces.

The conversation after this story revolved around how to prevent dangerous situations in the first place, and the remainder of the symposium shared advice for operators who are just dipping their toes into the agritourism waters.

Keep visitors and animals safe

While it is crucial to keep visitors safe during their farm visit, agritourism operators also must prioritize the safety of their livestock. Cheryl Miller, a district field veterinarian with the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, explains the first step to starting an agritourism destination that features livestock or adding livestock to an existing destination is determining how visitors will encounter the animals.

“When you’re setting up your business, you’ve got to decide how much contact the public is going to have with your animals,” Miller says. “Is this going to be a site where they go out and intermingle right up next to the animals, or is this a situation where they’ll stay on the other side of the fence and touch them, or is there not going to be any contact at all?”

These options pose varying levels of risk, especially if an operator decides to let visitors interact directly with animals. Miller says while petting animals is popular with visitors, the risks need to be considered.

“You’ve got to make those decisions because you don’t want anybody to get hurt,” she adds.

No matter which level of contact is present, Miller has recommendations for keeping visitors and animals safe:

  • Post signage to warn about possible dangers, like electric fences.

  • Keep all areas tidy.

  • Only have healthy animals on display; quarantine sick animals.

  • Set up handwashing or sanitizing stations.

  • Keep exhibit animals separate from production animals.

  • Prohibit food and drink around animals.

Another decision is whether to allow dogs at the farm. As mentioned by the panelist who dealt with the dog fight, dogs can engage in dangerous behavior with other dogs or guests, as well as spook the livestock. Miller suggests making any policies clear on the farm website or on signs at the entrance to the farm.

“You need to think about that before it happens so that you’re not offending somebody because you won’t let them bring their dog to the farm,” Miller says.

Scan venue with critical eye

Something that agritourism operators may not consider is how visitors are going to view their operation, especially since these operators see their farm every day. However, Miller says it is vital to walk through the property with a critical eye to look for issues visitors may notice.

To be proactive, Miller recommends maintaining clean barns, pastures, water troughs and feeders. Keep up with fence repairs and avoid rusty fencing. While some of these areas may not pose problems for the animals, visitors will pass judgment.

“A person’s perception is their reality, whether it’s correct or not,” Miller adds. She shares that it’s best to address any potential issues before even inviting people to the farm.

Turning visitors’ focus to education can help draw attention away from potential criticisms. Signage with facts about the livestock or husbandry practices can be a positive focal point.

A group of young girls looking at images of flowers

Put production first

Miller explains that it’s important to not lose sight of your farm as a business. This means prioritizing the health of your production livestock and ensuring they remain separate from the agritourism business. Opening your farm to visitors can take some of the control out of your hands.

“You have no control over where these people who come to your site have been before or what they’ve been exposed to,” Miller says. “You need to be aware of this. If you have a commercial operation, and you’re doing this as a side venture to try and educate the public about your farm production, keep the public away from your commercial side.”

She says it’s best to keep a small group of animals separate from your main production livestock, and those two groups should never be combined. Further, it is better to keep the groups at different locations, if possible.

Another consideration to maintain production livestock health is having enough staff so there are different workers caring for the separate groups of animals. However, if this is not possible, Miller recommends feeding and caring for the production animals first.

If an animal needs to move from one group to the other, Miller says the animal should be quarantined for at least 30 days, although 60 to 90 days would be best.

The possibility of disease transfer from visitors to livestock needs to be considered before putting livestock on display at an agritourism destination. Miller says the risks may outweigh the benefits when it comes to protecting livestock health.

“This may be the biggest reason not to have the public actually interacting with your animals,” she adds. “The closer they are to your animals, the better chance that they can transmit some disease that they’ve carried in. If you keep them separate, you’re going to decrease risk.”

The decision to incorporate livestock is ultimately in the hands of the agritourism operator, but putting these safety precautions in place can help minimize risk. Additionally, putting the focus on education rather than animal interaction can ensure visitors and livestock are safe.

About the Author(s)

Allison Lund

Indiana Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Allison Lund worked as a staff writer for Indiana Prairie Farmer before becoming editor in 2024. She graduated from Purdue University with a major in agricultural communications and a minor in crop science. She served as president of Purdue’s Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow chapter. In 2022, she received the American FFA Degree. 

Lund grew up on a cash grain farm in south-central Wisconsin, where the primary crops were corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. Her family also raised chewing tobacco and Hereford cattle. She spent most of her time helping with the tobacco crop in the summer and raising Boer goats for FFA projects. She lives near Winamac, Ind.

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