Ryan Goodman is a generational rancher from Arkansas with a degree in Animal Science from Oklahoma State University. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, studying beef cattle management. Goodman is one of many farmers using social media to bridge the gap between farmers and urban customers. Follow his story daily at AgricultureProud.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
There are several critics of bills being passed into law at the state-level across the country. These so-called “ag gag” bills are making news in publications like the New York Times. Op-eds with headlines “Open the Slaughterhouses” bring about much support, as seen in a Times reader's response “Silencing Witnesses to Animal Abuse.“
What does the threat of undercover video mean to me as a cattle producer or as an employee of a concentrated animal feeding operation (often called a CAFO)?
When someone walks into my family’s cattle barn, they are more than welcome. Next to making sure our animals are being taken care of, we are in the business of hosting our customers. If we are not in the middle of feeding, handling or marketing cattle, we will be glad to entertain questions and even allow reporters and cameras in for a story about what we do. A perfect example of this is last year’s visit to our farm from CBS News and numerous visits from local television affiliates.
If those folks walked into our barns and saw an act of animal abuse occurring, they should report it immediately. There’s no need to wait, let it stew and hope for more “proof” to stir up some dust. There’s no need to edit the footage for content or add a narrative. Report it to the supervisors, owners, or call the authorities. Be done with it and let the criminal system do its job.
If those folks walked into our barns with an intent to capture footage, piece it together and narrate it to depict scenes of animal abuse, we would feel violated; as would our neighbors, friends and other family businesses like ours. This is what has happened and likely led to many farmers' apprehension about being open and transparent to those asking questions.
That fear of being the next target is what I felt one morning working in the Texas feedlots. It was Sunday, so I was splitting time, helping the pen riding crew ride through their cattle for the day, when I saw an unfamiliar black car slowly rolling down the drive a few rows over. The car crept along, driving close to the feed bunks with the back window rolled down halfway, then a camera came out the window.
I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I knew that there wasn’t any particular reason for someone to be taking pictures of the cattle in our hospital pens. Yes, the cattle looked unhealthy. That’s why they were pulled away from the general population to be monitored and allowed to have free access to water and fresh feed as they recuperated from what was often respiratory illnesses or digestive upset.
There was nothing wrong with taking pictures of those cattle. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure what reason an unfamiliar car would have to drive up and take photos without stopping to introduce themselves first.
It turned out, one of our cowboys had the day off and his in-laws had come to visit. They were out for a Sunday drive and wanted to see where he worked. It just as easily could have been someone with negative intentions, as in the many other scenes I had witnessed online. We didn’t want to be the next target of inaccurate propaganda.
I cannot speak from personal experience about slaughterhouses, but can tell you there have been several efforts made in recent years to improve transparency and put in place audit systems to ensure proper animal welfare measures are effective.
The issue here for me isn’t trying to cover up animal abuse. It is allowing those who are not familiar with livestock production, who may have motivation to do harm and paint a picture before making sure the statements are accurate. Farmers like my family are more than happy to walk you through our farms, but first let’s introduce ourselves and find out what you want to learn.
Our country doesn’t need another law telling us how to act behind the gates. We need encouragement for better transparency without harassment from others seeking to place blame and mislead for personal gain.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan Goodman.
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