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.
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.
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.
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.