Let’s make something very clear from the start. This is not a discussion about the ethics of genetic tools to increase the rate of advancement. If you are not clear about our position on this, read the many articles on the benefits of genomics. This is a discussion of the almost daily decisions breeders have to make, when it comes to the promotion of their herd. They are faced with many tough decisions and often ethics comes into play. Breeders must choose between taking the high road at a perceived financial loss or taking the low road and becoming a perceived “winner.”
There is no question that, when it comes to promoting your genetics, ethics plays a huge role in how you do it. From getting cattle ready for the show ring or the classifier and feeling the pressure to make sure she looks her best, or sometimes even better than her best, to the ethics of photo manipulation. Many of these questions can shake you to your moral core.
For years there has been great debate about what is acceptable and what is not. I can still remember as a young child watching a grown man whom at the time I had admired greatly (will remain nameless) threaten my father with physical harm, because Dad was enforcing the code of ethics at the Royal Winter Fair (part of his job at the time). It actually was a pretty scary moment for me. I was convinced it was going to come to punches. Knowing that this man was much larger than my father and that Dad has a pit-bull mentality, I was convinced it was going to get messy.
Everyone has the wants to win. There is no question about that. However, for some, the desire to win, and the perceived financial gain that comes with it can make them do things that you would never normally consider doing. Having worked on the “show circuit” I have heard the full range of justification for the actions that some (and I do say some as it is by far not all) are willing to take.
Just before ultrasounds were introduced into the Royal, many on the show circuit made comments similar to “They should just throw the rules out the window and let the best man win”. I have never forgotten that comment, or the person who made it. It was person who I have a very close friendship with and a great deal of respect for, but on this issue I could not DISAGREE more. Not for the reasons you may think. I disagree for the effect that it has on our ability to market cattle internationally. If all our cattle are perceived as fake then why would people want to buy progeny out of them? Since the chances of you getting an animal as good as what you’re seeing is, obviously, very unlikely.
This leads into another touchy subject that I set off the other day with our article “Has Photo Enhancement Gone Too Far?” but ties in to the same core issue. If buyers or potential buyers cannot be confident that the animal or genetics they will get is what they see, are you really winning? I am sure in the minds of those who make these changes they think they are doing the correct thing. Are they really? Are you really helping the breeder sell more? Or are you hurting the industry as a whole because you are causing some to distrust the legitimacy of the image? Yesterday at Ontario Spring Discovery, I had a talk with Patty Jones about this issue, a woman whose passion for dairy cattle is second to none. Patty has probably done as much for the marketing and promotion of cattle as anyone in the world. Moreover, (while not quoting Patty directly) there is no question (as there never is when it comes to Patty’s position on anything) that Patty sees the harm that those who have gone over the line are doing to the rest.
Am I saying that it is not possible that on that day they got a great shot? No. I have been there and had it happen. We use to kid that a cow had to look great twice in her life, once on classification day and once on photo day. Photographers like Patty are great at what they do. There is no question that when we call Patty to picture our cattle there is no question she will do her best to get the shot. However, she does so within her moral boundaries. That means yes, she will put shaving cream in the topline or make-up on the udder to make the veins stand out (much like a beautiful woman does before going out). But that is where she draws the line. She never puts veins that were not there, or “extends” their depth of rib or height of rear udder.
Even though we all know the technology is there to do so much more, Patty believes that it’s not worth the cost of her name. While it’s often been said that damn Patty got a great shot of that cow, it has never been at the expense of her ethics. It’s for that reason that people (myself included) have such respect for Patty.
As we pointed out in our article, “Has Genomics Knocked Out the Hot House Herds?” Genomics has greatly changed the ability or a breeder to affect how their cattle rank on the top indexes. Having said that, there are still many ethical debates that a breeder must face. I have seen very strong moral based breeders be pushed to their limits to achieve success. The need to provide for your family or win can be a very challenging choice indeed.
While you know that, they are pushing the limits, the number of excuses for why it is ok start to be many. For me it becomes a more a question of the system than certain players. For the most part these breeders know how the system works and are working within the system. Is the answer to punish these breeders for working the system? Alternatively, is there a need to adjust the system itself? Having grown up in a household where the system was talked about on a daily basis, there is no question that I believe the system can evolve and adjust to account for changes. Much like the NHL had to change, as the players got bigger, stronger, and faster, so does the proof system. Genomics takes a great step forward in this process, but there are also many other changes that can still be made.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
When it comes to marketing dairy cattle genetics, breeders face many ethical questions. This is no different from many other industries where the ethical position is changing. In the corporate world, there has been a huge trend to transparency and accountability. I think this is what we are starting to find a call for, when it comes to marketing dairy cattle. There is a huge potential for “new” money to come into the marketplace. Many breeders who were afraid to spend on top cattle because they were afraid to be “scammed” are now starting to look at it again. Genomics has done a great deal restore confidence to the market place. By being transparent and accountable, the potential profits far outweigh current levels. We see the amazing potential for well-informed breeders to breed and market great cattle. That is the reason why we started “The Bullvine”.
To get a copy of the Dairy Marketing Code of Conduct please click here.
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