Journalists who don’t know farm words lose credibility

Duane Dailey

There’s still a need for agricultural journalists. And for more journalists who know that all bovine are not cows. There are differences between cow, calf, heifer, bull and steer. Then there are those swine words: Sow, boar, piglet, shoat, on and on.

Names make a difference. Even trusted news outlets, such as wire services, get farm terms wrong. In stories all bovine are called “cows.”

A story that farmers read twice told of a semi-trailer wreck that dumped 80 cows on the road.

City readers took it at face value. Those from a beef farm didn’t believe it.  They’d never seen a semi-trailer hold 80 cows. Maybe those were 80 veal calves.

That’s another word to learn: veal. Those are dairy calves weaned early from mama cows. That frees a dairy cow to give milk for us. The calves are bottle fed and harvested early to make “veal.” That’s as near to white meat as you’ll get in beef.

Every word conveys its own story. Feedlot cattle can be heifers (females) or steers (castrated bulls). No need for bulls in a feedlot. Intact male bovine make odd-tasting meat.

A recent press photo showed a feedyard of cattle (an inclusive term). The caption called them “cows.” Another big “oops” that could be caught by an agricultural journalist.

Everyone enjoys their lives because of farmers. Farmers know all those agricultural words. Farms grow many plants and animals that become food.

Food takes us into a whole world of words describing meat we buy at supermarkets. Most consumers may not know a difference between a loin cut and a cutlet. There’s a difference. Then we get into descriptors of tenderness and juiciness.

Consumers are learning differences in USDA meat grades. Prime sounds like it should be first. Choice doesn’t sound like second. Select, in third place, just cannot match Prime in eating quality.

If you eat beef in a burger at a fast-food joint you’re probably in Select territory. It’s ground, so you don’t feel lack of tenderness. In fact, that burger may be from an old cow, not a Prime steer.

Beef farmers learn real price premiums paid at slaughter for carcasses grading Prime. Grid prices above daily market prices pay for special kinds of Prime beef. For example, Certified Angus Beef brings extra bonuses. That means it is a “cut above.”

Grid premiums are paid to the last owner of a calf going to slaughter. Farmers selling calves at weaning as “feeder calves” lose bonus prices. Those specialized farm words mean differences in eating quality and in prices paid or received.

As a long-time agricultural journalist, I worry.

There are fewer farm kids available to become journalists. I’m concerned about farm kids appreciating reading printed words. On our ag campus most seem engrossed in cellphones. Few carry books.

There are still opportunities for FFA and 4-H members to be reporters. They can learn to write farm youth stories for their local newspapers. My first story printed in the county paper was a turning point. Neighbors noticed, I could write. “You wrote that?” What a lift that was for me.

This week an MU magazine for alums carried a story about MU Extension Show-Me-Select Heifers. With it they printed a stock photo of a dairy cow. All bovine are cows, Right?

MU alums are calling local Extension livestock specialists asking if anyone on campus knows the difference between a dairy cow and a beef heifer. Not amongst editors at highest campus levels.

But, administrators don’t know either. In budget cuts the degree program for agricultural journalism was killed. Not enough students were enrolled in that specialty to continue it. Short sighted? Some think so.

No idea that maybe food education might be affected.  Remember food comes from agriculture. Do I fret too much?

If you see a farm-word blooper, let me know. A mistake makes it fake news. Send to