Fluffy Cows Equal Ag Ed Opportunity

My Generation

#Fluffycow may have cooled but you can bet it will be top of mind as consumers visit state and county fairs this summer. Here's a look at what show kids might need to know.

Published on: July 2, 2013

My latest column in the July Prairie Farmer takes a look at fluffy cows, and how our show cattle kids are on the front lines of consumer education this show season. If you haven't gotten yours in the mailbox yet, here's a look at what they might need to know this summer! Click here for the link, or read below.

And good luck in the show ring!

Fluffy Cows: They're Still Beef

When I was a kid and my family was showing and selling Shorthorn cattle, we exhibited at the MidSouth Fair in Memphis, Tenn., every year. It was one of my favorites, mostly because I got to hang out with my southern cattle girlfriends. And there was a tent next to the barns that served hot biscuits and gravy every morning. Yes, please. But it was also an eye-opener.

WHERES THE BEEF: Matt Lautner commissioned this graphic, combining a photo of the original "fluffy cow," Texas Tornado, with information on cuts of meat. He and hundreds of other cattle producers shared the graphic across various social media.
WHERE'S THE BEEF: Matt Lautner commissioned this graphic, combining a photo of the original "fluffy cow," Texas Tornado, with information on cuts of meat. He and hundreds of other cattle producers shared the graphic across various social media.

The fairgrounds, at that time, were located in the heart of the city, which meant we had a constant stream of city folks through the barns. All day long. And they asked a lot of questions: "Only the bulls have horns, right? What's their fur like? Do you milk them? Can I pet them? Do they bite? They're so pretty!" We answered questions and stopped them from wandering right into the stalls to pet our livestock.

I marveled: how can they really not know this?

It was my first realization that agriculture is a little insular. We do stuff that no one else really knows about. And it happened again earlier this summer, when the world discovered "fluffy cows."

The inside scoop

Back in late May, someone encountered a photo of a club calf bull owned by Iowa-based Lautner Farms and posted it on Reddit, a popular social networking site, where it ignited a storm of interest in teddy-bear like "fluffy cows." Even though he was a bull. But whatever.

Before long, #fluffycow was trending on Twitter, and the Today Show, USA Today and other media came calling, wanting to know exactly how cattle producers make cows so fluffy. The story shifted to showing cattle, and non-agricultural types marveled that there was this whole industry they knew nothing about. Show cattle were compared to show dogs, and some wondered aloud if we were crossbreeding poodles into cattle.

Um, no.

The question for the cattle industry is whether personifying "cute" cattle is good for beef production? Because in the end, we are producing meat, whether it's fluffy first or not. As expected, PETA seized on the opportunity, asking why anyone would eat a fluffy cow?

Certainly, the spotlight shone bright on the show cattle industry, as people across the country learned that it actually exists. Matt Lautner and my editorial colleagues over at Beef Magazine worked to redirect the conversation to beef production. Seizing on the attention, Lautner commissioned a meat graphic (see below), which was then shared far and wide across social media.

PR pros

In my mind, the fluffy cow sensation reinforced a principle I learned long ago: the show ring - and with it, the cattle, the kids and the adults who participate - are the frontlines of publicity for the beef industry. They are far more likely to come in contact with the consuming public than, say, a feedlot manager in Kansas.

Admittedly, not everyone is happy about that, given a sizable chunk of the beef industry doesn't feel the show cattle industry accurately represents real-world beef production. And when you're looking at structurally-incorrect steers and questionable show practices, which are widely accepted among the top tier of the club calf industry, it's not hard to understand why mainline beef producers are leery.

As a former seedstock producer who grew up in the showring, and as a commercial producer and show mom today, I am keenly aware that when our kids step into a showring this summer, they are the face of the fluffy cow phenomenon. At their first show in June, even the judge mentioned fluffy cows and that we have to remember we are producing beef, not hair. Indeed.

With the state fair around the corner, we'll have a prime opportunity to answer questions, to be polite, and to explain that our fluffy cows aren't just pretty. They're hamburger and steak and roast, and that's why we're raising them. Our kids can share what they've learned about selecting cattle for good carcass traits, for good feet and legs, for breed conformity. They can tell of the hours they've spent in the barn, feeding just the right ration, rinsing calves and working hair.

Bottom line: Attention is an opportunity we can make the most of. Let's talk beef, not hair.


Post Tags: livestock, PETA

Add Comment
  1. David says:

    Really? I must have missed the whole point of this article, because I never saw the word "cooler" once. And now you question me like I don't understand? Forget it, I thought I was asking a serious question about representing the beef industry to a journalist. You sound more like a disgruntled show mom than someone that is concerned with the way the public views production beef. Please do not respond.

    • David, I know you understand the situation, and I was simply trying to explain what I was thinking of when I used the phrase you questioned. I am happy to answer your questions and not sure why this conversation derailed. Further, the question I posed to you is a valid one given consumers' desire to see hogs, chickens and cattle roaming wild and free on green pasture, and one that the beef industry needs to consider. Coolers are a practice that is accepted among segments of the show cattle industry, and I believe consumers would have questions about them. As a journalist for a trade publication and as an agriculturalist, it's a fine line to walk between communicating about hard truths, while not giving ammunition to those who would seek to end our livelihoods. That's why I never used the word "cooler" in print. I'd be glad to converse further and would encourage you to drop me an email: hspangler(at)farmprogress.com.

  2. David says:

    I enjoy reading most of your columns. I was apalled when i read this, mainly "questionable show practices, which are widely accepted among the top tier of the club calf industry". This is from a person involved with show cattle writing a column about a chance to inform the general public? C'mon, really?

    • Holly Spangler says:

      David, what are you appalled about, exactly? That it happens? Or that I recognized that it happens?

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Coolers, David. They're legal. They're accepted. But how do you think happy-cow-loving consumers who like to see cows frolicking in pastures would feel about them? And our 4-H kids?

      • David says:

        I am concerned that someone writing an article about educating non-ag consumers would state that questionable show practices are widely accepted. Anyone involved with show cattle, or any show stock, knows that this may happen, but it is not accepted at any level. It is comparable to stating that driving and texting is widely acceptable. As I stated before, I enjoy your columns, this just struck a nerve with me.