How farmers view their animals

How farmers view their animals provides some useful insights into:

  • the way the general public, or particular segments of it, may perceive farmers
  • how farmers can improve their image with the wider public.

In a previous edition of Sheep Notes (spring 2012), Roger Wilkinson and Peter Barr described Victorian consumers' views of farmers using a four-category system of:

  • critical
  • supportive
  • disengaged
  • contented.

A similar system1 has been used to look at how farmers view their livestock, recognising the conflict between farmers caring for them as individuals and having to detach themselves from this bond when slaughtering them for food.

This system uses the terms 'attachment' to describe bonding of farmers with their animals, and 'detachment' to describe the defensive attitude that allows farmers to deal with slaughter. Adding a further qualifier — the degree of concern — leads to four categories (see Table 1), just as Roger and Peter had used previously.

Table 1. Categories of farmers' views of livestock

DescriptorExamplesFarming style

Attached attachment

Animals kept as outdoor pets

Subsistence farms

Concerned attachment

Milking cows

Modern intensive farms

Concerned detachment

Animals destined for slaughter

Modern extensive farms

Detached detachment

Animals viewed as commodities

Corporate farms

These four categories also reflect the progression in farming practices over the past centuries, from the subsistence farming systems of the 19th century and earlier (and still practised today in developing countries) through various degrees of intensification to modern corporate farms.

The closest relationship — attached attachment — sees animals kept as pets, never to be slaughtered. It also covers a subsistence farming system, such as in Nepal, where animals are valued as members of the household, kept for their utilitarian value in producing food for the family (as draught animals for ploughing, or providing by milk or eggs).

Nepalese religions mean that the populace is nominally vegetarian, with meat eaten only during religious festivals. Cows (which are sacred) that have reached the end of their productive lives are turned loose on the streets to live 'forever-after'. Goats kept for slaughter for religious festivals would perhaps be nearest to the next category in the relationship description, that of concerned attachment.

In the concerned attachment category, farmers have a relationship with some of their animals that is close to the animals being seen as pets, in that they are recognised as individuals, although it is understood that many will be slaughtered as a function of the farm's production system. Typically, the closest relationships are with animals who are on the farm for a long time and are frequently handled as individuals. On a dairy farm, these would typically be the proven, best cows. On a sheep property, the bottle-reared orphan lambs that become long-lived pets fit this category.

Further along the scale on these farms are the animals destined for slaughter at a young age — for example, the wether prime lambs. The relationship with these animals falls into the category of concerned detachment. The concern is based on the knowledge that good husbandry results in quality production and a quality life, even if it is necessarily short, which is why farmers view these animals with detachment.

I see modern Victorian family sheep farmers typically exhibiting both the concerned attachment and the concerned detachment styles.

The last category — detached detachment — is the least 'close' relationship (in anthropomorphic terms), and is a characteristic of corporate or large-scale farmers. Here, the sheer volume of animals under care, often for only short periods, prevents any of the animals being seen as individuals and prevents any attachment. This is seen in intensive poultry or pig production systems, and the boardrooms of corporate farms. However, stock workers on these enterprises have a bond with their charges of concerned detachment, putting value on their skills in husbandry to promote quality production.

These categories provide some insight into the perspectives of animal rights activists who idealise the human–animal bond. They would prefer to see all animals kept as pets or, at the worst, in a system allowing concerned attachment, such as a small, early 20th century dairy farm. Clearly, corporate farmers, without any bond with their animals, are disliked by such groups.

On the other side, it is well recognised that all farmers, irrespective of their day-to-day relationship with animals, show deep and genuine sorrow when their livestock are destroyed in emergencies, such as bushfires or control of a disease outbreak (such as foot-and-mouth disease).

So how do Victorian sheep farmers, under the economic imperative of increasing farm size to provide for their families, show concerned detachment for some of their flock? How do they demonstrate this to others looking at their farm operations? Would electronic identification allow the easy identification of good-performing ewes and their progeny, allowing farmers to bond with these sheep out of their holding of many thousands (just as pig farmers have concern for their best sows and boars)? Perhaps. Should larger farms highlight the husbandry work their staff perform to demonstrate this level of concern for their charges?

At the very least, this information provides some understanding of the perspectives of both farmers and those agitating against modern farming practices. By knowing something about your opponents' views, you can develop counter-arguments that support what you do.

1 Bock BB et al. (2007). Farmers' relationship with different animals: the importance of getting close to the animals—case studies of French, Swedish and Dutch cattle, pig and poultry farmers. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 15(3):108–125.

Page last updated: 22 Oct 2021