Improving public perceptions of dairying is key to the resilience and continued success of the UK industry. So what are the concerns and what can be done to address them?
TEXT FIONA MCLAUGHLIN
Dairy businesses across the UK are responding to seismic changes, but as they look to improve the resilience of their operations, should addressing public perceptions play a part?
It absolutely should, according to recent research presented at the BSAS conference, because it’s not just dairy sales that are at risk, but producers’ ‘social licence’ to farm.
Amy Jackson has been studying public perceptions of dairy-cow management in the UK during the past four years in a novel AHDB-sponsored PhD at the University of Nottingham’s vet school. Some of the conclusions she revealed at the conference make uncomfortable listening – and are not necessarily what she herself set out to find.
“Having worked for years trying to communicate modern dairy farming systems to the public, I started this research wanting to find the silver bullet that would improve support for what we do,” she explains. “Instead, I had to acknowledge that we need a complete ‘reset’. Many people actually feel deeply uncomfortable with some of our practices – and the discomfort is getting worse, which is creating new problems.”
Amy Jackson: "Emphasise your connection with your cows."
She cites increasing regulation, more stringent retailer demands, animal activism, and tougher planning obstacles as typical so-called ‘social licence’ challenges. “The recent Panorama exposé is a prime example. If these stories are now airing on national mainstream media, we should be extremely concerned.”
The practices people take issue with include all-year-round housing of cows, cow-calf separation and what people perceive as a relentless cycle of pushing animals through annual calving. Part of the problem, she says, is communication.
“Producers and vets judge good animal health and welfare one way, but the public see it differently. The public doesn’t have the technical knowledge, so they use ‘icons’ like straw and space and outdoor access to gauge how well animals are cared for.
“Our answer is to try to educate them away from this simplistic view and get them to see welfare as we do, but this rarely works. There’s plenty of evidence to show that activities like zero-grazing remain rejected, despite contextualising and explanations. And visits to dairy farms to resolve specific issues can also raise new concerns about previously unknown practices.”
Instead, Ms Jackson says the industry needs to establish more common ground with the public, and show them we share their values. “There’s a big leadership job needed at industry level. Establishing trust is the first job.”
A more open conversation about what the industry needs to improve – as well as what it is proud of – would be a good start.
“Nobody trusts airbrushed portrayals of perfection, particularly when they are easily undermined by contradictory social media footage. People are also more likely to trust the positives if you also admit the challenges, and if you really ‘own’ those issues and are acting on them.
“So getting that ‘we are listening’ message out at an industry level is going to be important to build a platform for change.” Next she believes the industry needs to accept that the public connect with dairy cows in many different ways. They feel a moral obligation towards them that producers are trusted to discharge.
“Producers should emphasise their own connections with their cows, how they know them as individuals, and how they’re always striving to understand them better and improve their care on the public’s behalf. “To most people, looking after a cow means protection when needed, plus naturalness. So whatever your system, think about how you can demonstrate both. Cow-centric systems, like robotic milking, are popular as they’re perceived to let the cow express her natural behaviour. It’s why people love footage of cows using brushes – they can easily see the cow expressing simple joy and satisfaction.”
"With issues that are less easily solved, such as cow-calf separation, acknowledge what you would like to be able to do before explaining why you can’t, and what you are trying to do instead,” adds Ms Jackson.
“Appreciation of the ‘ideal’ is important because it establishes a common goal, and then you are more likely to be asked to share the technical challenges and what you are trying to do to overcome them.
“Explain, for example, ‘we’d love to keep calves on cows – but we haven’t found a way to make it work yet. So until we solve it, this is what we’re doing to make things as good as possible for the cow and calf’. And always show you are working to improve – people don’t like complacency.”
That said, communication can only take us so far, stresses Ms Jackson. Ultimately, producers may need to consider adapting how they farm to meet changing societal expectations.
“Logistically and financially, it’s a challenge. But at a time of such huge change in the industry, there will be ‘sweet spots’ that improve business resilience while being positive for the cow and generating a story to sell. It’s going to be important to keep an open mind and look for opportunities.”
David Christensen: "We're well positioned to produce wonderful milk in the UK."
Producer David Christensen milks 600 cows, at Kingston Hill Farm in Oxfordshire, and agrees that a ‘reset’ is needed. “But how the dairy industry achieves this is the big question. While we’re not perfect, I believe we have a really strong story to tell at industry level. Examples include our comparative environmental footprint, the considerable reduction in antibiotic use, our high standards of animal welfare. But our messages just don’t achieve cut through.
“My question is whether we have the leadership and the vision to solve this. Is it time for a fresh approach using external expertise – new people with a proven track record in completely repositioning how an industry is viewed?”
He admits a ‘rebrand’ will not be cheap, and some changes at farm level will almost definitely be needed, but this must be weighed against the cost of doing nothing “We’re so well positioned to produce wonderful milk in the UK – let’s make sure we look after the reputation of our sector so we can take that opportunity.”