By Martin Ross
This fair season, somewhere between the corn dogs and the pedal tractor pull, take a turn through the livestock barns.
Wander, explore, and take in the sights and the robust smells. And, by all means, speak up. The livestock producers and exhibitors you’ll see throughout the barns welcome the dialogue and chance to tell their stories.
One of those farm families you may meet are the Oros from Greene County. Jake and Mary, along with their daughters Jade, Mira and Ava, specialize in raising breeding stock for the cattle industry. In addition to their own 60-cow herd of largely Angus and Maine-Anjou cattle, the three sisters are enthusiastic livestock exhibitors.
In her second year at the Illinois State Fair last summer, Jade took reserve champion for her steer. Mira’s bull calf claimed reserve champion at the 2008 Greene County Fair.
Jake Oros sees farming as “a great way of life” he’s grateful to share with his children. He emphasizes the rewards, the realities, and the responsibilities of livestock production, and Oros works to instill in his girls a deep respect and care for their animals.
Sound livestock care isn’t just part of the farm way of life. It’s good economics. Like producers across the U.S., Oros is disturbed by the occasional but well-publicized stories of animal abuse in his industry. And just as importantly, he is concerned by the public’s frequent lack of understanding of what constitutes true “animal welfare.”
For example, California producers are bracing for the economic impact of Proposition 2, a state ballot initiative approved last November that places severe new restrictions on livestock housing and “confinement” operations where animals are raised indoors under controlled conditions.
“Prop 2” could affect 95 percent of California egg production, potentially forcing consumers to buy eggs from other states or Mexico. Illinois Pork Producers Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk warns that if similar restrictions spread nationwide, U.S. consumers could be forced to import meat raised “under lesser standards or, in some cases, no standards.”
Amid public confusion over animal welfare vs. animal rights and confinement vs. “free range” production, Oros recognizes the crucial need for consumer education. The county or state fair’s a good a place to start the dialogue.
“That’s what cattle shows and the state fair are for – to educate people,” Oros says. “If you don’t know, don’t just make your own judgment. Ask somebody who might know.”
“Stop by a farm some day and visit, ask questions. It wouldn’t bother me if anyone stopped by my place out of the blue to ask questions – ‘What are you doing? Why do they eat that?’ That’s what usually causes problems – when people don’t know.”
The state fair exemplifies Illinois’ commitment to livestock health and welfare. All exhibitors at any Illinois fair must comply with the state’s Humane Care for Animals Act, which is designed to ensure owners provide their stock proper food, water, and shelter.
For Oros and his neighbors, animal care is about more than mere compliance. Well-cared-for animals are more relaxed and healthier and, as a result, perform better. The more time producers spend with their animals, the better they can spot signs of illness or injury.
Kaitschuk argues California’s Prop 2 succeeded largely amid a consumer “feel-good” attitude about free or open range production systems. In reality, he maintained, there are several reasons why confinement is “a better form of raising animals today.”
Animal comfort and air temperature and flow are controlled in the poultry or hog house, Kaitschuk notes. Animals are protected from predators.
From an environmental standpoint, confinement operations control manure which otherwise might wind up in local streams and rivers.
All that currently may mean little to Mira Oros. The Greenfield Elementary student and 4-H member cares primarily about the impact her respect and care have on the farm environment and animals she loves.
“They act nicer around you, they’re easier to show, and you become friends with them,” she offers. “In the summertime, we get up every morning at 7 and work with them, talk to them, wash them, brush them.”
Find the dates for your local fair at this Illinois Department of Agriculture website.