*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
AS a writer, I am continually reminded of two things: first, that words have tremendous meaning, and second, that most of us take that simple fact for granted, especially in terms of agricultural production practices and the non-farming public.
What has me specifically concerned on the subject is the debate over gestation stalls on hog farms. Now, I fear that we will also lose the battle over farrowing stalls before it even starts.
I have long pondered how much of a stretch it is for animal rights groups like The Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals to move from simply condemning gestation stalls to advocating for a ban on any non-group housing system. Last week, I think I saw the first glimpses of that transition happening.
Compassion Over Killing (COK), one of the more radical groups in the animal rights movement, released a video last week documenting what it called "the day-to-day miseries forced upon thousands of female pigs" at an Iowa "pig breeding factory farm."
In the video, which depicts a variety of real and perceived ills, the narrator bemoans the problems inherent with gestation stalls before moving to the concept of farrowing stalls, roughly equating the evils of the two while glossing over the differences between their uses in sound animal husbandry.
Feedstuffs shared this note of clarification on its Facebook page:
"Remember, there is a difference between farrowing stalls and gestation stalls. Sows are in gestation stalls for their 15 weeks of pregnancy and then moved to farrowing stalls. Sows are pregnant for 114 days -- three months, three weeks and three days (one of the least variable pregnancy lengths in domestic livestock). Sows are moved to the specialized farrowing room during their last week of pregnancy to give birth and nurse their piglets. The time they are in the farrowing stall is typically 21-28 days."
That comment also spurred my thinking. How many of us in agriculture use these terms interchangeably?
Obviously, this question is somewhat rhetorical, but I know it happens, and I'm guessing the average consumer doesn't know the difference between a gestation enclosure and a farrowing stall. The concepts are similar enough that if one is "inherently evil" (as suggested by the animal rights lobby), the other must be bad by sheer extension of the argument.
The second thing I was given to considering while viewing the COK video is my ongoing challenge to food animal producers: YouTube-proof your farm! I can't say this emphatically enough.
The COK video was not the most damning such video I've ever seen; I just haven't seen much coverage, which is great in one sense.
The reality, however, is that we each need to start with two basic shifts in our paradigm.
First, we have to start thinking with a food-centered mindset rather than a production-oriented focus. Second, we have to think of all of our production and handling practices through the lens of YouTube. How would it look if your farm were on YouTube at any given moment in time?
As I posed it to a group of Wisconsin beef producers last week: Would you want to invite five non-farm friends over to watch you process calves this spring? How would you feel if those non-farm friends were standing alongside you while you banded and tagged calves? Would you be comfortable, or would it make you a little nervous?
If the latter is true, you need to rethink what you're doing and how you are doing it on your farm.
I'll agree that the very talented undercover workers hired by animal activist groups can make almost anything look bad on YouTube, and the (relative) mildness of this latest video is evidence that not every undercover video is going to put someone out of business.
Still, the fact that another animal rights activist got a job on a farm and walked away with anti-meat footage is proof positive that we are not yet doing a good enough job of changing the way we think in this business.
As many of us discussed last week, McDonald's is the latest of the major food chains to force changes in how its suppliers produce food. The power of the purse may be more powerful than mere philosophy, but I think we all know change is, and has been, afoot in our profession.
The question is whether we are ahead of the curve or 20 years behind the times.