That’s Outrageous!

How dare they?! Who could possibly have conceived such a poorly thought out, backwards and insulting notion?  Why would they ever have done that?!

I could easily be talking about the recent snafu whereby Earls Restaurants Ltd. amended their supply of beef to be from producers who meet the Certified Humane label. Of course if you followed the ensuing social media outrage, you’ll know that means Earls eschewed Canadian beef farmers in favor of American producers that subscribe to this voluntary certification program.  However, I could just as easily be talking about A&W Canada’s decision to market their hormone & antibiotic free – but also not Canadian – beef as better tasting.  Or maybe I’m talking about the Alberta Government’s passage of Bill 6, a controversial piece of agriculture workplace standards and safety legislation. Or the carbon tax. Or American politics. Or the latest winner of whatever reality show has people captivated these days.

In reality, what I’m really talking about is our collective outrage. Or rather, perhaps it’s our awareness of outrage that seems collective. You can’t turn on your TV, radio, phone or computer without seeing, hearing or reading about someone who it outraged these days. It seems like we live in a generation of outrage.  So are we really more outraged than our predecessors or is it just our ability to connect globally through social media and the internet that allows us to perceive an issue as so much larger than it really is?

My problem with outrage is this: it makes for great headlines (and bylines) and it draws the clicks and the views and the comments but it also undermines the true message that organizations and individuals who are experts in the subject matter spend lots of time and money researching, cultivating and presenting.  In my view, outrage serves to polarize.  Those who agree strongly with your view already do and they were already your supporters anyway.  One only needs to look at the election demographic in Alberta to know that the Wildrose Party is preaching to the converted when they take up arms in favor of farmers or that the NDP has strong support from urbanites on things like public transit.  On the opposite side of the fence sit your detractors, or your opponents.  Stating your outrage, particularly in semi-violent or vitriolic manners, only serves to give them fodder for attacking your stance and “proving” how wrong you are or how out of touch with every day people you seem to be.  This type of opposition-based parrying will endure forever, so while it’s problematic, it’s not the root cause of my concerns.

No, my concerns lie in the normalized distribution of demographics.  If you remember high school statistics class, you probably know the bell curve. You know, the one where the vast majority fall within a certain percentage of the middle-ground, with fewer and fewer outliers (extremists) on each end.

Standard_deviation_diagram.svg
Example Normal Distribution (the “Bell Curve”)

The outliers I’ve already spoken about, but it’s that vast majority of the population that falls within the “meat” of the curve.  Generally they may be unaware, or apathetic, or even willfully ignorant. But overall, they haven’t formed supremely strong, polarized opinions on a topic.  And because they represent the largest segment of the population, they are the swing votes.  They are who marketers target. They are who you try to convince to join your side in the debate.  They are the ones that really are who we try to attract when we market a product or service.  So how do we think they feel about outrage? About watching both sides of the spectrum spew off, with rants and raves either for or against a divisive topic?  Sure, maybe some are swayed to one side or the other because they had natural inclinations that way, but in reality they remain largely apathetic or unaware.  The lack of knowledge on a specific topic leads to that apathy. Or sometimes they know and they just, quite frankly, could care less.  There are more important things going on in their life than the tempest in a teapot the extents of the curve have created.  So, the vast majority go on doing just that – living their life.  They ignore the outrage, they might even be turned off by it, or maybe they haven’t even heard or read it.  But any way you slice it, the outrage falls upon deaf ears, if it reaches them at all.

Which makes me wonder how effective outrage is anyway.  I mentioned the organizations and experts that work to carefully research and craft messages based on that research. Does general outrage – particularly that which is ill-informed or out of touch – actually serve a benefit to these organizations?  I postulate that it doesn’t. You see, if I’m a farmer, I’m likely to be supportive of the research and messaging my farm association is responsible for; after all, I trust them as my research arm and my marketing body.  They advocate on my behalf.  So they don’t need to convince me to join their ranks, or vice versa.  Who they need to convince are the unconvinced, the unaware and the uneducated – the masses in the center of the bell curve.  They need to do this in ways that actually reach the intended audience, connect with the intended audience and provide something of value to the intended audience.  Those key messages?  They get lost in the static like your favourite song as soon as you reach the extents of the radio station’s broadcast range.  And the more static there is, the harder and harder it gets to decipher what is really coming through in the transmission.  The louder the competing voices are, the harder it is to hear the voice you are trying to listen to and the harder it is to have your voice heard amid the clatter.

There’s another pair of phenomena that accompany outrage or at least attempt to counteract it but are just as harmful to credibility. Time and time again I see these come to light, often with the best of intentions but a patent lack of understanding of just how detrimental they can appear:

  1. Boasting.  It’s wonderful to be proud of our product, service, industry or performance but when we start to throw around boastful claims that cannot be statistically or scientifically validated (things like “We know we produce the world’s best beef.” – what does that MEAN anyway????) then we undermine the credibility of the very thing we are trying to protect.  Leave the facts and the boasting to the organizations and experts that we pay to develop those messages.  Meme generation is a wonderfully easy thing, but if your meme facts aren’t correct, you’re doing more harm than good.
  2. Hypocrisy. We rail against Earls for choosing a “labelled” product over one that isn’t labelled but then we appeal for consumers to purchase a labelled product.  Albeit, the label is different, perhaps slightly more innocuous and certainly it’s in our favour because it is the product we are supporting, but still it IS a label.  Or we boycott A&W because we all know that “better beef” can’t be substantiated the way they are marketing it, but then we turn around and boast that “Alberta produces the best beef in the world” and expect consumers to just flock to our doors.  Throwing stones at glass houses when we live in one ourselves is a very, very dangerous practice that further alienates those middle-ground consumers and risks turning them away from us for fear that we simply aren’t being truthful.

Ultimately I suppose it’s futile to appeal for rationality and calm in a world where it seems that irrational emotional tirades grab the headlines and dominate the airwaves.  However, I would like to hope that we’re not actually a generation of people who are any more outraged than previous generations. I would like to believe that the quicker access to more global information just leads us to feel that way.  I would like to think that the vast majority of us are adequately able to filter through the BS to get to the key messaging.  Alas, I don’t know if all of those can be achieved.  Certainly they cannot be when we have adversarial rhetoric dominating the discussion.  It gets us absolutely no further ahead to threaten, belittle, deride or chastise each other based on our difference of opinions.  The beauty of humanity is that we were not all cast from the exact same mold. Individuality is key and our ability to achieve collective harmony is far more amazing than our ability to create collective discord.

I’ll leave with this thought…. Right now in Alberta, we are “outraged” over a private business making a decision to source their supplies of high-end beef from another country.  In other countries in the world, people are (literally) dying for a few grains, or for access to clean water, or because they have to hunt for their meat and their hunt is perilous and meals are few and far between.

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Maybe if we take anything out of this, it’s that we are so spoiled to even be discussing these issues when there are so many others envious of what we already have.

 

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Are You Prepared?

If you’re a pet owner, livestock farmer, or facility manager where there are animals, are you prepared for an emergency scenario?  While preparing for a fire, flood, tornado or animal trauma may not be as popular and sexy as preparing for the zombie apocalypse these days, it is vitally important.  After all, those who fail to plan are planning to fail.

Just recently I attended a course on Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER). The background of the attendees was diverse: industry representatives, NGO’s, veterinarians, vet techs, producers, fire fighters and technical rescue members.  I was there both as a member of a technical rescue task force, and as a producer with an inherent and lifelong understanding of large animals.

Have you ever had a large animal (or any animal for that matter) in a situation that they cannot get themselves out of? Maybe they fell through the ice; got stuck in the mud; were stranded by rising flood waters; were trapped by a growing wildfire; found themselves in a barn on fire; fell off a cliff; fell into a well/ditch/hole in the ground (happens more than you’d think); got stuck down a steep ravine; got tangled up in something; had a loading/unloading/hauling incident; or found themselves in a trailer that was sideways or upside down (Note: trailers are meant to remain upright, as are the animals inside the trailer).


 CALL THE EXPERTS

The first thing I can implore you is this: if you have an animal that cannot self-rescue (ie Get out on their own), call the experts. This means your local fire department and veterinarian. While fire fighters may not know large animals, they have the tools, resources and manpower to deal with emergency situations. Combined with the owner and a knowledgeable vet, animals can be rescued safely. In addition, this group has access to a litany of other experts, many of whom may be trained in large animal technical rescue. DO NOT put yourself, or your animal, at risk of further injury or death by doing it yourself!!! Stubborn pride and shame kill a lot of people – please don’t become one of them.

The 1st Livestock Response Unit in Canada... http://rdcounty.ca/251/Technical-Rescue-Task-Force
The 1st Livestock Response Unit in Canada… http://rdcounty.ca/251/Technical-Rescue-Task-Force

So I mentioned the experts. This is my chance for a shameless plug. Our Technical Rescue Task Force team responds to a variety of emergencies: water, ice & swift water rescues; confined space rescues; high & low angle rope rescues; missing persons (ground search & rescue); structural collapse; and large animal emergency response. Our team trains at least once every single week, to ensure our skills are always current. When combined with fire service, police and paramedics we can respond to almost any emergency or disaster, whether natural or manmade.

Which brings me back to being prepared. I can’t tell you in a blog how to rescue animals in any situation. Every situation is different and every rescue plan is different based on the circumstances. That is why we train for this type of emergency – we know that there are 25 other letters in the alphabet, in case Rescue Plan A doesn’t work. But pre-planning is the ounce of prevention that saves the pound of cure. By pre-planning, hopefully you can avoid an emergency situation; heaven-forbid that something does actually occur, your pre-planning will ensure you are prepared when it does.

So, large animal owner, boarding barn manager, dairy farm worker… What can YOU do to pre-plan for an emergency?

AROUND THE FARM

  1. Make sure you have fire extinguishers in easily accessible (and marked) locations in each building. Keep your extinguishers up to date and check them regularly.
  2. Consider installing thermal (ie heat based) fire alarms/detectors in any facility where you regularly have people or where your animals are housed. One of the leading causes of barn fire is electrical faults and they happen in an instant; once a barn fire starts it doesn’t take long to go from not-at-all to fully engulfed. Cheap household detectors will not work for this purpose for various reasons, though they are better than nothing. Household detectors will go off with the presence of dust in the air, and you have to be within range to hear them. Commercial detectors are more expensive, sure… But if you have $100,000+ worth of animals in your barn, isn’t it worth spending a few thousand to ensure their safety?!
  3. Fence off extremely muddy areas and areas containing open water. Animals will wander into these areas to drink, which may seem like an efficient method of watering. Especially fence open water off in winter, when the risk of animals falling through the ice is significant. Aside from the health benefits of having stock not defecating in their water source, this is a quick and easy way to mitigate risk.
  4. Have an emergency response plan prepared. Take some time to think about what could happen on your property. Fire? Tornado? Flood? Do you have topography that could cause problems? Consider these and come up with a plan for each.
  5. Know who to contact in case of an emergency. Have a list of responder phone numbers ready and easily accessible. During an emergency is the LAST time you want to be thumbing through the phonebook (yes, they still exist) or Googling a phone number for someone to help you out.
Be fire smart & fire safe with your house & barn
Be fire smart & fire safe with your house & barn

TRAILERING

  1. Perform your annual maintenance. Brakes should be checked annually for wear. Bearing should be checked and re-packed at least annually. If you don’t know what re-packing means, book an appointment for your trailer at your local trailer service centre.
  2. Check your trailer before hauling anywhere. Check tire pressure, look for uneven tire wear, make sure your brakes and lights work before you leave the yard, ensure your hitch is locked correctly and that your safety chains are hooked up (Correctly too!). And finally… DO NOT forget to hook up your breakaway brake cable, separately from your safety chains (if your brake cable is hooked to your chains, it won’t always engage if your trailer becomes separated from your tow vehicle). As an FYI – being passed on the highway by your own trailer is not a fun feeling.
  3. Carry a roadside safety kit (reflective safety vest, roadside flares or marking triangles & a first aid kit) and extra supplies. Remember Murphy’s Law – you don’t want to be caught on the side of the highway at night without reflective protection for you and your rig. Consider having not 1, but 2 spare tires (if you run something over, what are the odds only one tire will go flat on a tandem trailer?!).
  4. Consider some nice “creature comforts” such as wireless tire pressure monitors (TPMS) so you can see your trailer tire air pressure in real-time, a wireless camera so you can see inside the livestock compartment and monitor your precious cargo, and 12V powered fans for hauling in hot weather. You’d be amazed at how little airflow comes into your trailer through the vents and windows, and when you’re broken down on the side of the road, the airflow is decreased to almost zero unless you have a stiff breeze.
  5. As a general rule of thumb, have one halter per animal you are hauling (assuming they are halter broke of course) in case you need to exit the trailer, switch to another trailer or even in the instance that you have an accident that overturns your rig.  Also consider having a livestock first aid kit (think human first aid kid, just larger gauze pads and wraps!) in case your animals cut themselves in transit.
Whether your trailer looks like this....
Whether your trailer looks like this….
or this... Be prepared.
or this… Be prepared.

There are so many ways you can prepare yourself, and so many resources available to help you prepare for a livestock emergency. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and when you have a livestock emergency certainly the last thing you want to be worrying about is why you didn’t prepare. Hopefully for you and your animals, you’ll never have to use the skills or the resources you’ve put in place. But you can take solace in knowing that if something were to happen, you would be prepared and that preparation may actually save the life of your animal…or you.

Life (and Death) on the Farm

One of the greatest blessings (and as a corollary, one of the largest curses) of living on a farm is exposure to the entire circle of life *insert Lion King soundtrack music here*.  You see newborns, you watch them grow and mature, and yes, unfortunately, you see death.  However, as only 2% of the North American population can be considered “farmers” this means that fewer and fewer people in our society have exposure to, and an understanding of, animal husbandry and the inherent joys and challenges that accompany it.

My first exposure to death came when I was far too young to remember. From stories and pictures I know that I had a great big canine best friend as a 2 year old. From my parents I also know that we arrived home one day to find him, shot to death, in our yard.  Less than 2 years later, major tragedy struck; our family barn (distinctly NOT a confined feeding operation) burned down due to an electrical fire in the middle of the night, with our pigs trapped inside.  Those who were able to escape, or who were rescued, were too badly injured from heat or smoke inhalation to survive, and had to be euthanized.  To this day, over 30 years later, my father cannot bear to own even one hog.

The first brush with death I can actually remember first-hand is when I arrived home from kindergarten to discover my new canine best friend lying dead on the road, having been struck by a vehicle going by. Oh, how I cried.  But then, shortly thereafter I can remember my first salient experience with the miracle of birth and nurturing newborns – cats having kittens, dogs having puppies, cows having calves and even a litter of baby skunks that we raised after they were orphaned. You might think all of this life & death could be too much for a young child to process, but in fact it had just the opposite effect. I understood all too well at the age of 6 what so many struggle with at the age of 26, 36 or even 66: life is finite – it has a beginning, and an end.

How could I possibly know this? It was self-evident in our behaviour as kids. Instead of naming certain calves “Betty” or “Norman”, we named them “Hamburger” and “Hot Dog”. We knew exactly where they were destined to end up – were it not on our plate, it would be someone else’s.  Now many people may feel free to criticize me for this barbaric practice, or to criticize my parents for the way we were raised. But, until you’ve lived, walked or worked in my shoes, you simply haven’t earned the right.

Some of my proudest moments come from on the farm, but so do some of my absolute lowest. I take great pride to this day in the fact that I worked hard to save a bull calf that was delivered breach on the dairy farm I worked on. His odds of survival fell somewhere between slim and none: he was far too large, delivered backwards and not breathing by the time he cleared the cow’s hips. Certainly he was destined to become veal anyway, so his death at birth was simply saving him from an imminent death experience at the hand of humans, right? Besides, why did I care? I was getting paid my $8/hr anyway, whether the calf lived or died. But, I did care. I cared a lot; I cared so much in fact, that I gave the calf mouth-to-mouth to get him breathing and I tube-fed and bottle-nursed him every single day thereafter for weeks until he was strong enough and willing enough to drink and eat on his own. I moved on, content that I had allowed that calf a life. Years later, I found out through the AI tech that bred many cows on that farm, that the bull calf I had saved was sold as breeding stock – for $50,000. Suddenly I wished I had worked on commission, but moreover I had an intense sense of pride that I was able to allow that bull to have a long and prosperous life because of my caring and actions.

Over the years I have seen many animals born, too many to count, in fact.  I have also, unfortunately, seen many die.  I have watched a kill at a local abattoir; I have observed a kill floor at one of the largest meat processing plants in Canada; I have assisted and watched while the veterinarian euthanized an animal using injection; I have euthanized and witnessed “putting down” of animals using a bullet; I have watched animals die of natural, manmade and “Act of God” causes.  Let me be frank – none of this is easy. It never is. It’s not easy to watch, it’s harder to participate in, and it’s downright tormenting to be responsible for.  But like birth, or life itself, death is an equal part of the life cycle and we cannot avoid it, no matter how hard we try.

All of the above is what makes me feel so privileged to be able to raise my children on the farm. They have the opportunity to experience the entire life cycle, and to understand the concept of life, birth and death.  I look forward to those teenage talks about reproduction because my single-digit kids already know how babies are made from watching the bulls breed the cows, the stallions breed the mares, or the dogs doing what dogs do.  Sure, at a young age they might still think 2+2=3, but the concept is easy to explain. Birth itself is easy, since they have already witnessed it. Life and purpose is easy because they live it alongside their livestock every day. And death is something they have already been exposed to; they know what happens when an animal gets too sick to get better, or when one of the cats goes missing or we find a body lying in the field one day.  But the real benefit is the understanding they have of the food system and where their food comes from. With a combined age less than 20, my kids have a more solid appreciation of where their food comes from than most 20 year olds in the city do. Most definitely my kids are aware that their food isn’t generated by the guy in the freezer at Costco or Walmart.  Now if only we could easily distribute that knowledge to those adults who are not aware…

Life on the farm isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. We have the opportunity to experience every facet of life, from conception to birth to death. We, as farmers, also have the opportunity to share our experiences and our knowledge with those willing to learn, who are not fortunate enough to observe the circle of life themselves.  This becomes not only our advantage, but also our burden – one we should embrace fully and take pride in representing.  Because ultimately, whether we are human or animal, we all are born, we all live to fulfill a purpose, and we all die. THAT is the circle of life.

Factory? Farm? Factory Farm?

The rallying cry from animal rights and anti-farming groups is familiar: farmers are monsters; they are faceless, nameless, profit-driven organizations who care not about animal suffering, nor animal welfare; farmers are those that care only about the bottom line.

Understandably, the inevitable parallel drawn between farmers and the “industry” has farmers standing aligned with their pitchforks raised in the air in protest, with some even going so far as to lose sleep (more sleep than lost by late night birthing checks, milking or veterinary call-outs, at least) over the denigration of the way of life they are so proud to be a part of.

So it begs the questions: What is a farm? What is a factory farm? And finally, what is the difference between the 2 and why can consumers not adequately differentiate?

A factory farm is defined as “a system of large-scale industrialized and intensive agriculture that is focused on profit with animals kept indoors and restricted in mobility.”

Opponents of farming and animals rights activists inherently focus their attacks on the pillars of “for profit“, “restricted in mobility” and surprisingly, “kept indoors“.  I say surprisingly, because for anyone who fancies themselves as a stockman, farmer or even animal lover, it only seems reasonable and humane that animals would be granted shelter from nature’s elements, if it should be available. However, these same activists seem to conveniently forget the part of the definition that refers to “a system of large-scale industrialized and intensive agriculture”. So why is this???

Simply put, it is so much easier to lob grenades at a target who is financially or technically unable or unprepared to lob them back. Taking on the “factory farms” has become a crusade against all farming and against animal husbandry practices in general, no matter how humane they may be or on what scale they take place.

Now I understand that to a city dweller with a limited number of pets (if any) a farm with 50 dairy cows or 25 sheep or 20 laying hens or 100 broiler chickens or 12,000 bushels of grain or 150 cow-calf pairs may SEEM a bit like a factory farm… It may seem like an operation that exists solely for profit… It may appear as though those animals are restricted in mobility, especially if you try to think of 50 Holsteins crammed into a typical suburban backyard… But this is where the line between perception and reality exists.

At current prices of $5-10/bushel for grains, that farmer is grossing $60,000 to $120,000. That’s gross (literally) because it does not account for the expenditures to realize that income, which reduce the net (take-home / profit) by as much as 50%. That hardly sounds like a “for profit” motivation to me!  The comparison between grains and livestock rearing on the family farm is stark. Family farms simply do not exist solely “for profit” or because they embrace “industrialized” methodologies.

So please continue to accuse us of being monsters who lie, distort the truth, show only the happy moments and delight in the torture, suffering and pain of animals while profiting from their exploitation… Because the truth is on our side; we are farmers. We know the truth about what we do; we live it every day.

The Beginning…

So this is the world of blogging. You know, I never much fancied myself one to think that others would care about what I had to say. Certainly when I started my twitter account @cowboymusings I didn’t believe people would line up; it was simply an avenue to learn new things, to meet like-minded people and share my experiences of the farm life.

I probably never would have happened across the #Farm365 hashtag aside from seeing it on my timeline and wouldn’t likely have gotten involved were it not for the attack being launched by overenthusiastic (and radical) vegans who were attempting to hijack and denigrate our way of life.

I don’t mind constructive criticism. I embrace people who are brave enough to challenge the status quo. I’m always, absolutely always, up for intellectual debate.  But I cannot stand idly by while those who are misinformed, closed-minded and ignorant to the truth launch their vile attacks on a way of life they have never even tried to understand, on the way of life that a dwindling number of farm kids choose to remain in because of economic hardship, the way of life that is in my blood.  When you cannot tell me the difference between a dairy cow and a beef cow but you can criticize me for my animal husbandry practices, you have lost all moral authority.

As best as I can remember from my childhood, Andrew Campbell was a good kid. Based on his promotion of #Farm365 I can only assume that he has become a strong, noble man. He has proven willing to fight for, and promote, a way of life that is continually being relegated to the shadows. For this, all of us AGvocates should be proud and supportive.

My chance online meeting (and impromptu defense of agriculture alongside) of @Skatch_minivan inspired me to do this, so let’s see if it’s an epic fail or not…

I will try to give you some of my history, some of my thoughts, and most absolutely I want to have your interactions and your comments on this journey.  We’re in this together, and right now we do need AG more than ever…