I have been a long time observer of the cultural gap between farm and non-farm folks. This gap, actually it is more like a gulf or in some cases a chasm, is a totally different worldview. It involves language, experience, fashion, food preferences, and humor. It still amazes me that we can all be members of the same society, in many cases even neighbors, yet are worlds apart. While this is true for all of agriculture, it is more evident in the cattle business. When it comes to livestock, especially cattle, there is barely a common frame of reference. I offer as evidence the current internet and social media phenomena known as the fluffy cow.
For those of you who are not on facebook, twitter, YouTube or other on-line social media channels, a bit of history is in order. The term fluffy cows was started by consumers. It refers to cattle that have been prepared for the show ring. The animal’s hair is made to “fluff” out give the animal a larger more solid appearance. This is not a new thing but has been part of showing cattle for a long time. Fluffy cows are not a new breed of cattle or the result of genetic engineering.
Iowa cattleman Matt Lautner inadvertently started the whole thing when a photo of one of his beasts, Texas Tornado, went viral on the internet and the phrase “fluffy cow” started showing up on Twitter. Despite the fact Texas Tornado is a bull, Matt seized the chance to convert the “fluffy cow” phenomenon into a marketing opportunity, creating the Facebook page Fluffy Cows R Us. Within a few days, the page had notched up 24,910 likes and currently has more than 30,000 fans. Matt has been careful to remind people that the animals — a mixture of Angus, Chianina, Maine-Anjou and Shorthorn breeds — might look cute, but they are not pets.
The sudden consumer fascination with fluffy cows has had an interesting development. This summer, 4-H youth and others working the livestock show circuit are playing up the fluffy cow look. People who would normally not venture near the livestock barns at a county or state fair are stampeding (pardon the pun) to the cattle barn looking for fluffy cows. Some county fairs this year even used fluffy cows in their promotional material.
The fluffy cow phenomenon has some good points and some danger zones. On the positive side, it is getting consumers interested in livestock and actually willing to ask questions about the animals. Often these questions are directed at the young people who are showing the cattle which gives them the chance to explain how they take care of their animals, how important it is to their family and their future, and how much hard work it is. In addition to being a great message to deliver to consumers, it also gives some much needed recognition to these talented and hard-working young people, many of whom will have life-long careers in agriculture.
On the negative side, the reason people are so enamored with fluffy cows is because they think they are cute. I call this the Bambi syndrome. We need to make consumers understand that fluffy cows are not cute, docile pets. We must help them connect the dots between fluffy cows and T-Bone steak. As one shocked consumer responded when being told about fluffy cows, “So, wait. If they’re getting primped for shows … that means the fluffy cows are going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder? They’re getting all fancied up just be sold to be eaten?” As Lautner Farms explains it, the intricate beauty routine “is all in an effort to earn the attention of a judge, who evaluates the animals — not just for the presentation of their hair, but for other merits like carcass quality (for market animals) or breeding traits (for heifers and bulls).” While it is great that more people walk the barns or wander into a livestock show, they need to come out with a better understanding of what they saw besides just a “fluffy cute cow.”
I have seen some growing resentment from serious cattle people who view this whole fluffy cow thing as trivial nonsense. Most cattle folks that I have known who are serious about livestock are just that: serious about their livestock. Imagine, after you have spent half a year getting your animals ready for show, drive 500 miles, load them out of the trailer in the middle of the night, spend half a day grooming them and then some tattooed and pierced person shows up and says, “Hey, man, where are the fluffy cows?” Some cattle folks are worried the fluffy cow craze will give people the wrong impression of cattle. Marybeth Feutz, a Southern Indiana Farmwife, wrote in a blog post on fluffy cows that these are not pets, “One very important thing to remember about cattle (fluffy or not) — they are very cute when they are calves. But they do grow up. Every one of our adult cows weighs over 1300 pounds. An adult bull can weigh 2000 pounds or more. Even these cute fluffy bulls grow into big, 2000 pound animals. I don’t care how ‘tame’ an animal is, once he gets that big, there should be no trusting him.”
Well, relax cowboys and cowgirls, like most internet crazes, fluffy cows probably will not last long. After the county and state fair season, most consumers are not likely to come looking for fluffy cows. It is not typical to see many non-farm folks at the Western Stock Show or the North American in Louisville. And this is most likely a good thing since, before too long, PETA will start claiming fluffing an animal’s hair is cruelty and HSUS will start a petition to prevent the practice. The sooner the fluffy cow craze goes away the better. While it does get consumers interested in the livestock industry, it also shows them a portion of the livestock sector they do not have the context to understand. Livestock shows are for the purpose of evaluating animals for either their meat or their semen. Both are aspects of the livestock sector most consumers really don’t want to know much about. Let’s hope fluffy cows will soon go the way of other internet phenomena like the dancing baby.
By Gary Truitt