When someone posted a photograph last week of a club calf bull owned by Lautner Farms on Reddit – a popular online forum – the media storm that followed was immediate and wide-reaching. From Yahoo, to TODAY, journalists wanted to know more about these “fluffy cows,” and what it takes to get that glossy coat of hair on those animals.
At first read, I had to chuckle. Who knew that the show ring part of the industry – such a celebrated but small segment of the beef business – would drum up so much attention? For those of us who have shown cattle, it seems like a normal, after-school and summer hobby to have as a kid. Washing, combing and blow-drying the hair on a 4-H heifer or steer was a fun responsibility, and going to the shows was the highlight of the year.
But, for consumers, exposure to the intense and extremely competitive world of cattle shows likely occurs only once each year – at fair time. Every summer, millions of Americans visit county and state fairs across the country, where they get their fill of cotton candy and carnival rides. After that, they might wander though the cattle barns (strollers, dogs, grandma, kids and all) to look at the “fluffy cows” and ask owners if they can pet one.
I’ve long said that fairs are a great platform for beef producers to interact with consumers, as it’s a public display of animal care and welfare. I think it’s crucial that we remind the young people showing – as well as their families, the judges and the hired guns who help fit these cattle for the show ring – that we’re in the business of raising beef to feed and nourish consumers. End of story.
While I think it’s great that the “fluffy cow” has made 4-H, FFA and junior shows “cool” and “sexy” in consumers’ eyes, I worry that we may unintentionally cause a “Disney effect” on our beef industry. After all, aren’t we popularizing a food animal into a “fluffy cow” that looks much like a cute and cuddly stuffed animal?
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Look what has happened to the equine industry and horse slaughter. Americans are outraged and disgusted at the idea of eating horses -- even though many parts of the world enjoy this protein. Why? Because their idea of a horse is formed from media – think “Seabiscuit” or “Black Beauty.”
Of course, PETA is getting in on the action, asking readers online how they could ever eat that cute, fluffy cow. And, many consumers are commenting how “cuddly” they find the fluffy cow. One Hollywood blogger, Perez Hilton, wrote about “fluffy cows” on his site saying, “If you were to combine a cow and a teddy bear, we're pretty sure you would get these guys. We wanna hug them like a teddy bear! Where can we find these cows? We want a fluffy cow to ride around and hug and just play with all day! Too cute!”
In my opinion, we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice by referring to our show stock as “cute,” “fluffy” or any other affectionate tag you might use to describe a kitten, puppy or baby. However, I do believe this is an opportunity to speak to our consumers now that we’ve got their attention. Let’s seize this chance to direct the conversation where we want it to go.
We need to refocus the message on the online forums and news stories reporting about “fluffy cows.” We need to introduce ourselves as the ranchers behind the beef consumers love and put the spotlight on the farm families in this industry.
Realizing that consumers might get the wrong idea about “fluffy cows,” forgetting that they are beef animals not pets, Lautners are already working to reframe the conversation. They have created an infographic that reads, “It’s so much more than fluffy cows -- hard work, dedication, discipline, leadership, passion, youth development, respect for life and the land, family, friendship, trust, love for the industry, and it’s our way of life.”
Phil Lautner tells BEEF Daily, “We are very vigilant that anti-animal agriculture groups try to turn conversations negative. With the #FluffyCow phenomenon it is our mission to keep the conversation about youth, family involvement and production. We feel it's necessary to try and educate others about our way of life and what animal production is.”
So, how can you help refocus the chatter online? I challenge all of you to go to these articles (links are listed below) and leave testimonies about what you learned by raising and showing cattle in 4-H and FFA (aside from growing hair, that is). Did you learn to balance a feed ration? Did you learn how to drive a truck and trailer? Did you learn how to calculate your inputs and your profits? Did you learn how to market those quarters of beef at the end of the summer? Did you learn showmanship, responsibility, hard work, integrity, the circle of life?
This summer, as we head to cattle shows with our families, let’s be sure to remind our kids of these important messages. Sure, it’s fun to win, and having a hairy calf sure makes that animal look better in the show ring. But, folks, we’re raising beef, not hair. And, I certainly want our kids -- the next generation of beef producers -- and our consumers -- who enjoy the steaks that we raise -- to remember it.
What do you think? Is the “fluffy cow” story in the news harmless? Is it a good opportunity to share our story? How do you think consumers respond to seeing a “fluffy cow?” How do you think it might impact their purchasing decisions down the road? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Further reading on this topic:
To join in the conversation, use the hashtag #fluffycow and/or #fluffycows on Twitter to see what folks are saying about this topic.
The Huffington Post says fluffy cows are the Honey Boo Boos of the bovine world.
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