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How to establish a culture that respects the animals

Bob Milligan Published on 19 November 2013

There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of dairy farm owners care about and care for their animals. There is also no doubt, however, that society’s perception of appropriate animal-care practices has changed and continues to evolve.

It is also clear that the perceptions of consumers about the attributes of the dairy products and meat they purchase are changing.

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As our society has become more affluent, more and more consumers have been able to base their buying decisions on attributes other than price. One of these attributes – quality – has been very beneficial to dairies.

As the above paragraph reflects, consumers make their buying decision based on their perceptions of the attributes of the products they purchase – dairy products and beef in our case.

As our society has become more affluent, the diversity of attributes consumers consider has increased. In recent decades, some of these new, more diverse attributes are not directly related to the products.

Most controversially, these new attributes have included how the products – milk and meat – are produced.

These changing attributes have not been limited to food. We have seen controversies over the location of production and the labour practices used to produce products.

In the dairy sector, the most controversial attribute not directly about our products has been animal treatment and practices used to handle animals.

The purchase decision is made based on the consumer’s perception for those attributes important to that purchaser. In the case of price, perception and reality should be pretty close, as the price is posted.

For quality and other attributes of the food itself, perception and reality will likely not diverge greatly as the consumer is eating or using the product, thus providing information to correct misperceptions.

For attributes not directly related to the product itself, however, there is no clear mechanism for ensuring that perception is even close to reality.

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Therein lies the opportunity for individuals or groups opposed to a product or a practice used in producing that product to promote perceptions that reflect poorly on the product.

The goal of the individual or group in this situation is to reduce purchases of that product.

Before discussing what the producer – the dairy in our case – should do in this difficult situation, we need to briefly discuss two realities that have been difficult for us in agriculture to accept:

1. We live in a consumer-driven world. The consumer – not the producer – ultimately decides what is produced. They do this by their buying decisions.

This has not always been the case.

Henry Ford’s famous pronouncement about the Model T Ford – “any colour you want as long as it is black” – reflected a very different world.

One in which the producer was in control. The affluence and increasing communication after World War II spelled the end of the producer-driven economy.

2. Consumers will continue to include attributes not directly related to the product itself in their purchase decision.

Consumers continue to show increased interest in how their food is produced.

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Dairy, beef and other animal products are among, if not at the top, of the list of products most interested in by consumers.

Given these two realities, the dairy industry, like all other industries, must be customer-oriented. But what does that mean?

We often hear that we should “listen to our customers.” I would argue the statement should be “understand our customers” or more specifically “understand the attributes that are important in our customers’ buying decisions.”

Understanding customers comes from studying their purchasing behaviour rather than asking them directly.

Just asking will seldom provide much useful information because consumers seldom are able to articulate what attributes are important, much less the importance of each attribute. Instead, they usually provide the answer they think is desired.

What, then, should the dairy industry and individual producers do to positively influence consumer perceptions about animal care? My answer includes:

1. Determine which animal practices are adversely impacting today’s consumers’ perceptions of dairy, and then decide whether the benefits of each animal-care practice to productivity and profitability are worth the negative impact on consumer perceptions.

2. Provide research and information that assists consumers in moving their perceptions about animal care closer to the reality of your animal-care intentions and practices.

3. Strongly and swiftly condemn the actions of “bad actors” and bad actions.

They are rare, but we do have producers whose practices are not consistent with proper care for their animals.

We also have instances where improper animal-care practices occur on dairies that utilize proper animal-care practices. We have a tendency in agriculture to be very passive in these situations.

Being passive or silent in these situations serves us badly. In these situations, industry leaders and individual dairy leaders must step forward to condemn the actions, apologize for their occurrence and explain what steps will be taken to ensure there is no reoccurrence.

4. Each dairy must develop a culture in which there is zero tolerance for unacceptable animal practices.

Dairy farms long ago developed a zero tolerance for antibiotics in milk. The same can be accomplished for unacceptable animal practices.

Let’s conclude our discussion by digging deeper into the last point. You are probably thinking zero tolerance for unacceptable animal practices sounds good – but how is it implemented? Think about this.

Every business has an explicit or implicit zero-tolerance policy for an employee slugging another employee.

Do you think that means no employee has ever felt like slugging a fellow employee? Of course they have. So what stops them?

To answer that question, we need to understand more about emotions, like anger and the resulting behaviour. We all experience emotions like anger.

They are very personal, only partially controllable and cannot be dictated by an employer. We should not, and in fact cannot, tell our employees how to feel.

We can, however, have expectations about how employees behave. Look at Figure 1.
Figure 1
The experiencing of an emotion by anyone, ourselves or an employee, triggers a decision about how to respond – the resulting behaviour.

A person can choose an instinctive behaviour or take the time to think and choose the thoughtful behaviour.

In our example of being angry enough to feel like slugging another employee, the societal and business culture pressures, and the potential resulting consequences, are sufficiently great to ensure that the employee will choose the thoughtful behaviour and not slug their fellow employee.

Returning to our zero tolerance for unacceptable animal practices, the question becomes: How do we establish a dairy business culture that ensures employees choose the thoughtful animal practice even when he or she is frustrated or angry?

The simple answer is: Like not slugging a human being, the cultural pressures and consequences are sufficiently great to ensure the thoughtful behaviour.

Establishing a culture with zero tolerance for unacceptable animal practices is, however, difficult as it requires the following three ingredients:

  • Every member of the workforce must have been trained and mastered the appropriate animal practices.

    This training must include what the acceptable practices are, how they are used and why they are so important that there is a zero tolerance for unacceptable implementation.

  • The dairy business has the welfare of the animals as an articulated, communicated and rewarded core value.

  • The employees must be passionate about the success of the dairy business and committed to upholding its core values.


The reality that we live in a consumer-driven world and that the animal practices we use enter into the buying decisions of some consumers is not always easy to accept. Denying those realities, however, will serve our industry badly.

Instead we need to accept these realities and focus on developing both production and animal practices and dairy business cultures that enable the industry to thrive in the turbulent times we live in.  PD

Bob Milligan is a professor emeritus of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

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Bob Milligan
Senior Consultant
Dairy Strategies LLC

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