Over the last several decades, animal welfare has risen to the forefront of livestock industry topics. Animal welfare research principles are utilized daily on farms across the country through the Beef Quality Assurance program.
Consumers and Animal Welfare
Consumers consider how their food is raised or grown when making purchasing decisions. These decisions are coming from a place of low familiarity with how cattle are raised.
“We have 27 percent of people saying that they are familiar with how cattle are raised. So that means 73 percent of people are just openly admitting they aren’t familiar at all with how cattle are raised,” says Shawn Darcy, director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). “At the same time, we have over 40 percent that are always considering how their food is raised or grown.”
The top drivers of purchasing decisions are taste, safety and value. In recent years, production-related attributes like animal welfare and sustainability have risen.
“Every one of our production-related attributes are up,” he says. “We have significantly more consumers this year considering those attributes than they did last year when considering a meal choice. While these attributes are not considered at the levels of taste, convenience, value and health, they are still displaying growth year after year.”
NCBA conducted focus group research and found that more than 60 percent of consumers have concerns with production with most of those concerns stemming from animal welfare. The research also found that 43 percent of consumers believe cattle live in confinement their entire life.
The Evolving Science of Animal Welfare
“I think really on its basic level consumers just simply care about animals, so they care about how they are treated,” says Lily Edwards-Callaway, PhD, Colorado State University animal sciences assistant professor. “People care and they want to be involved. Related to that, people care about where their food comes from.”
Edwards-Callaway notes animal welfare has been said to be a public good. A public good is something within society that everyone can enjoy and benefit from.
“We want animals to have all of these things if we are providing them with the care that they deserve,” she says. “There is nothing in the definition that you probably would not have thought of yourself.”
The discussion of farm animal welfare dates back to 1964 when British woman, Ruth Harrison, published “Animal Machines” criticizing livestock farming practices of the time. In response, professor Roger Brambell, developed “The Brambell Report” which later became known as “The Five Freedoms”. 
“There has been some criticism of the Five Freedoms because they are absolutes,” says Edwards-Callaway. “But they really have been the foundation for animal welfare and started us off on the right foot for farm animal welfare.”
Edwards-Callaway adds Fraser’s Three Circles as another framework for modern animal welfare. 
“If we consider Fraser’s Three Circles talking about animal welfare, we need to make sure we consider what is important to the animal versus what is important to us. Ultimately, we need to consider the animal,” she says.
The principles in the Five Freedoms and Fraser’s Three Circles correlate directly to the code of cattle care from the beef quality assurance (BQA) manual.
BQA is a nationally coordinated, state implemented program that provides systematic information to U.S. beef producers and beef consumers of how common sense husbandry techniques can be coupled with accepted scientific knowledge to raise cattle under optimum management and environmental conditions.
“We pay significant attention to basic health and functioning, either directly or indirectly,” says Edwards-Callaway. “I think BQA does a great job of that.”
How to Communicate to Consumers
It is more important than ever to communicate animal welfare efforts to consumers.
Consumers are trusting different sources than they have in the past. Modern consumers trust grocery stores, restaurants, butchers, bloggers, and farmers rather than conventional sources like the FDA, USDA, and big corporations.
“Farmers and ranchers are seen as very credible and people want to hear from them, as well as the people involved like veterinarians, nutritionists, and universities that are doing all this research,” says Darcy. “People want to hear from those trusted sources.”
To build consumer confidence in the beef industry, the BQA program was developed.
“What we started to think about within the beef quality assurance team is, is this a message that will resonate with consumers?” he says. “We were able to change views of consumers by just introducing what the Beef Quality Assurance program was.”
After learning about BQA, 70 percent of consumers increased their confidence that the beef they eat is safe, 67 percent of consumers increased their confidence that the animals were treated humanely and another 62 percent said learning built confidence in buying beef from supermarkets or restaurants.
Last fall, the Beef Checkoff, under the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. brand launched a campaign to educate consumers on the BQA program. The campaign was largely a digital video campaign focusing on cattle are raised.
“Overall things were really positive,” says Darcy. “The top concerns were really seeing how the animals were raised, open pastures and reminders of gentle handling.”
The BQA campaign resulted in positive production perceptions that beef is produced in an environmentally friendly way, raised responsibly and raised by trusted farmers.
For more information, visit BQA.org.
The Future is Bright
Illinois cattlemen are finding great benefits in solar energy.
By Christy Couch Lee
In the not-so-distant past, the idea of solar panels and show barns didn’t exactly go hand in hand. In fact, it’s fair to say most cattlemen would have rolled their eyes at the thought.
But times change, and so do cattlemen.
Scan the cattle pastures and fields the next time you drive the Illinois countryside. Chances are you’ll notice solar panels amidst grazing cattle.
Illinois cattlewoman and solar energy sales representative Allie Loschen says they’re only becoming more common with each passing month.
“The benefits are great,” she says. “Illinois is the No. 1 state in the nation, in return on investment for solar energy. And there’s never been a better time than now to take advantage of the incentives.”
Loschen and her husband, Brian, manage Loschen Farms Inc., Paxton, Ill. They raise their four children: Mason, 11, Landon, 9, Lucas, 9, and Adalyn, 4, on the family row crop and cattle operation.
In addition to being actively involved in the family operation, Loschen has also worked in the solar energy field for three years, and since November has been a sales representative for Harvest Solar, a solar energy company founded in 2006 and licensed in 11 states, including Illinois.
She’s seen many changes within the solar energy industry. And she says with the proper research; the right incentive programs in place; and the right company working on your behalf, you can see the advantages of solar power on your cattle operation, too.
From Cattle to solar
Allie and Brian met at the Illinois State Fair, when they were stalled across from each other with their Simmental strings. The two combined forces when they married, and Loschen moved from her family operation in northwestern Illinois to join Brian at his family farm in the east central part of the state.
They’ve worked as a team for the past 15 years on the family row crop and cattle operation, where they manage 100 head of cows.
“I enjoyed the people I worked with, but there’s only so much need for livestock feed in the area,” she says. “A friend had worked in the solar energy industry and told me about it, but I honestly thought they were crazy. It seemed like a ‘crazy liberal thing.’ I was just sure my family would judge me if I took a job in renewable energy, and I was concerned the ag world would scoff at it.”
But the more she researched, the more she saw the benefits to be earned. She took a chance, and she is glad she did.
“As I started looking further into it, the implications and profitability for a farm are huge,” she says. “I am able to help farmers – or anyone within agriculture – realize the benefits of solar energy to operate their own facilities. And that’s how we have come to have our farm solar powered, too.”
The Loschens have a 55-Kilowatt (kW) system elevated 5 to 6 feet into the air, with a drip edge. Cows are able to walk beneath the raised panels, receiving shade during the hot summer months; and the farm receives power.
“We are running show cattle and donors, so we don’t have a lot of space or people working in our operation,” she says. “Because we didn’t have the space, we decided to raise the panels up. We don’t have to worry about maintenance, and the panels are high enough that they can’t be hurt by the livestock.”
Illinois Reaps the Benefits
For many reasons, Loschen says, there will never be a better time than now to take advantage of renewable energy in Illinois. The benefits can be broken down into three categories: REC subsidies; state grants to cover installation; and tax credits.
Under the Illinois Commerce Commission Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) Requirements, solar energy Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) can be subsidized through Dec. 17, 2020. Within the RPS, more than $200 million was budgeted annually to purchase these RECs, with a goal of 25 percent renewable energy in the state by 2025.
“Solar energy does take up space and is somewhat expensive,” Loschen says. “For that reason, programs have been established to help offset those costs.”
One such program is Illinois Shines – a state-administered incentive program supporting the generation of solar power in Illinois.
“This program pays you based on the amount of RECs your installment generates,” Loschen says. “That payment can be large and is based on the kilowatt hours produced. It can cover up to 20-40 percent of your actual costs.”
In addition, farmers who install solar power systems will receive a 26 percent federal income tax credit for 2020.
“Last year, it was 30 percent, and next year, it will drop another 4 percent,” Loschen says. “The incentives may not ever be better than now.”
Producers also see benefits in depreciation of the solar power system, Loschen says.
“You can depreciate your solar power system through the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), or all in one year,” Loschen says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides grants of up to $20,000 for qualifying projects. Loschen says the right solar energy company can put a customer in touch with a cost-effective grant writer who can help secure this additional funding for a solar energy project.
And by combining these benefits, Loschen says, producers can see great advantages to renewable energy.
“Normally, within the state of Illinois, a farm can pay off the system in one to five years, at the absolute most, without even considering the benefit of getting their electricity for free,” she says.
Yates says this approach worked for him.
“Allie was able to direct us to programs and incentives,” he says. “You can almost get a majority of your system paid for.”
A critical element to success with solar energy is working with a reputable company, Loschen says.
do your homework
Loschen says her biggest concern is that producers are not educated enough about renewable energy when making decisions.
“There is so much to know, and there are so many companies offering solar energy. You must know who you’re dealing with, up front,” she says.
When researching solar energy companies, Loschen says, look into the quality of their product.
“At the end of the day, a solar project will last 30 years,” she says. “Therefore, the ground mount needs to last 30 years. People think it’s all about the panel. But I’ve seen lots of chintzy 2-inch piping put into the ground – it looks like it will just blow away. Our company uses 6-inch I-beams, driven 9 feet into the ground.”
For this reason, Loschen recommends physically inspecting each company’s product before making a decision.
“We live in wind central, here in Illinois, with winds that can get up to 50 to 90 MPH,” she says. “People are spending as much as they spend on a car on these systems – and sometimes, they make decisions without touching and feeling these systems. Make sure you like the look of the system before you purchase it.”
Also, she says, the company you choose will also be responsible for reporting to the state, on your behalf, for the next 15 years.
“This company will do all of your state paperwork, will receive your RECs, and will be your vendor for RECs,” she says. “You want to work with a company who will be around for the next 50 years.”
And, of course, reach out to others who have installed solar energy systems of their own, and ask questions.
“Solar energy has moved into most rural areas, and one person typically knows another who is utilizing it,” Loschen says. “Ask them about it. How is the company to work with? How was the installation experience? How was the quality of the installation? Are the crews subcontracted, or do they work for the company? Check company websites, and ask for more information. Always ask lots of questions.”
a decision for the future
Yates says he believes the investment in solar energy was an investment in future generations.
“Solar energy is clean,” he says. “We have three grandchildren, and I think about the world we are leaving to them. I also like that solar materials are recyclable, and we aren’t going to be stuck with an installation that will be an eyesore 15, 20 or 50 years down the road.”
If you’re considering a transition to solar energy, Yates recommends researching reputable companies, and visiting with trusted colleagues who have already made the switch.
“Basically, it’s pretty simple,” Yates says. “Once you make the decision to use solar energy, most people are pretty satisfied, once they see the results.”
Yes, times change. And with that change comes a change in mindset. And solar energy just might be that change your operation could use, as well.
Illinois renewable energy resources
Interested in learning more about solar energy for your operation? Research reputable companies in your area. And you can refer to these websites for additional information, as well.
Ernst Family Farms creates pasture-to-plate success story.
say it has everything to do with location. Others might say it was sheer luck. Deep
down, the Ernst family of Ernst Family Farms near New Douglas knows having a
quality product ultimately deserves all the kudos for helping them grow their
operation into a farm-to-table success story. Owned by David Ernst, Ernst
Family Farms brings beef production full circle in the
shadows of St.
Just a few
years ago David and Whitney Ernst, along with their two daughters, operated a
commercial cow-calf, backgrounding, and small finishing operation along with
marketing halves and quarters privately to friends and neighbors. They often
toyed with turning the enterprise into a full-scale business focused on
marketing individual cuts after customers kept requesting more ground beef. In
2016, they went to a farmers market to see if they could really turn a profit
with the direct-to-consumer market.
Today, the family works with two local processors and has a constant supply of individual beef cuts in a walk-in freezer situated in a building that serves as a retail location on their family farm. Their direct-to-consumer business has taken off since their first farmers market in 2016. They currently sell beef cuts from the “meat shop” adding a discount for those customers that will pick up their order from the farm with about 90 percent of their business coming from farmers markets. You can find Ernst Family Farms beef at a farmers market in Edwardsville every Saturday during the season and on Thursday nights in Maryville.Click to Read More