Winning… At What Cost?

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I’ve been around show cattle for the latter two-thirds of my life. From my first 4-H calf to my love of county and state fairs, I have a thing for going to shows and looking at high quality cattle.

In my media work over the years, I’ve worked or consulted in almost every facet of agricultural news, marketing, and public relations. My areas of expertise are typically policy and politics related to food animal production and consumer relations, but I still keep my feet firmly rooted in the beef industry in particular, and production agriculture in general.

Over the summer I did some consulting and design work that involved laying out fliers and advertising promoting beef cattle genetics. In so doing, I got involved in a conversation about cattle photography, and the integrity involved therein.

Taking pictures of elite livestock, it seems, is a big business. As one of my buddies put it, these days it seems every kid with a livestock background has some kind of photography on his resume. The business of marketing our stock is as important as ever, which means there is money to be made.

That being said, the technology available to us today has made the job of taking photographs “easier” than ever before. Note the quotation marks around the word “easy.” Taking a great photograph takes as much skill and raw talent as ever. Taking a more or less acceptable shot, however, is more attainable for us rank amateurs than ever before.

Think about it: today I can buy a camera of exceedingly good quality for the price we paid for a basic Polaroid ten or fifteen years ago. I can then take a more or less decent photo with my amazing camera, and with a nifty software program called Photoshop that I bought at the campus bookstore for $169, magically turn an average bull or heifer into the next “great one.”

Don’t act surprised, you know what I’m talking about. It happens.

Here’s what I know for sure: the great photographers in our business still take great photographs, and they do it with pride and integrity in their work. There are however, according to some of my most trusted friends in the show cattle community, those out there with, shall we say… sketchy moral values.

For those few, the mantra is “win at all costs,” which in this scenario means using the available technology to “enhance” an animal’s phenotype for marketing purposes.

Think back to some of the really great animals you’ve seen in sale catalogs and farm ads. The animals look amazing: fitted to perfection, with the perfect show ring profile, amazing hair, correct feet and legs, and that little extra something that makes you reach for your wallet. And then time goes by, and… you never hear about that animal again. Either the calves don’t pan out, the animal blows up and goes away… who knows.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m very much in favor of presenting an animal in its best possible light. Electronically removing a halter, and cleaning up what I call “background distractions” is advisable, and understandable. Actually altering an animal’s phenotype, on the other hand, is ethically wrong, and potentially dangerous to your business.

Doctoring livestock photos in the show cattle community is the equivalent to seedstock producers turning in “enhanced” birth weights and weaning weights to “game the system” and generate more desirable EPD’s. Eventually the truth catches up with you, and customers realize a bull’s progeny simply don’t live up to the numbers on paper.

My word of caution is this: people aren’t dumb. Most of us understand the technological capabilities available today, and what they allow us to do with an animal on paper. If you are a breeder or marketer of elite livestock, don’t presume your customers are too stupid to know the difference between the real deal and a PhotoShop dandy.

The short-term consequences of selling your soul for a great picture may be a sweet payday. The long-term repercussions to your reputation within a very small industry, however, could last a lifetime.

Editor’s Note: This column was originally written to appear in the August issue of The Show Circuit, one of the leading magazines in the livestock marketing community. However, due to concern over the potential controversy the piece might engender among some audiences, the publisher rejected it and asked for another piece, which will run in its stead.

While I respect the publisher’s stance on this issue, I felt the commentary was worth sharing.

Editor’s Note, Part II: Roughly 45 days following the publication of this editorial, Show Circuit dropped me as a contributor, ostensibly to reflect a “new direction” in the magazine’s editorial content. I struggle not to see the two events as a mere coincidence…

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

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