When photos of Matt Lautner’s prize show bull Texas Tornado appeared on a popular online forum Reddit, he had no idea it would create an Internet sensation. Nor did he have any indication an opportunity to open a window to the beef industry was coming his way.

Then someone commented on the “fluffy cows” — a term coined online — and the cyber world had a new mascot.

ABC News, the Associated Press, the Today show and CNN all took note and ran stories on the phenomenon. Texas Tornado went viral. A Facebook page, Fluffy Cows R Us, created by Lautner, compiled 37,000 “likes” in just weeks.

And Lautner seized the opportunity. “Now that we’ve got their attention, I think it’s a great opportunity to teach them about our industry,” says Lautner, who breeds show cattle near Adel, Iowa. “Every year, millions of Americans walk through the cattle barns at fairs and expos, and now, more than ever, I think they are going to stop and really take a look at the fluffy cows in the aisles. This is the perfect opportunity to talk about not just fluffy show cattle, but also beef and beef by-products.”

Lautner is by nature and by trade a cattle breeder and promoter. Lautner genetics are a common sight in show rings across the country, frequently winning top honors. And Lautner makes expert use of today’s communication tools to highlight their success. With sites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and a daily blog on his own website at his disposal, he utilizes digital communication to its full potential. “Promotion is key, in my business and the beef business in general.”

Lautner has been around beef since he was a kid. His dad started raising show cattle in the 1970s, and Matt started Matt Lautner Cattle in 2006. Three sales each year feature offspring from his 60 bulls, and he puts an emphasis on 4-H and FFA calves, selling around 75 per year. Last year Matt Lautner Cattle sold semen in 44 states.

Fluffly cows cast light on beef

He and his fiancé live in Adel, with 8-month-old Matilyn awaiting her turn in the show ring. “She may be the youngest one in there,” Lautner laughs, “but I can’t wait to get her started.”

Lautner is pleased to see not only the beef industry receive the worldwide web’s attention, but the show end of the industry as well. “It’s a long-held tradition in the beef business, and there are kids across the country who spend a lot of time working with these animals. It’s nice that these kids are finally getting some recognition for their hard work.”

Daily, the show-cattle photos appear on the Facebook page: fluffy cows and their handlers from all over the world. There are photos from show rings and show barns; photos of kids and adults caring for their animals and bonding with their animals. Facebook friends hail from Australia, Italy, Northern Ireland, England, Argentina, South Africa, as well as across the United States.

“The response has really been overwhelming,” Lautner says. “Really, I think people are falling in love with these fluffy cows. Many spend hours scrolling through the photos.”

But the image of cattle as pets (one news source called them large kittens) is not one everyone thinks is best for an industry that produces a major foodstuff. Lautner disagrees, using the forum as a food-production educational tool. He’s created graphics that show Texas Tornado with the cuts of meat and beef by-products, showing fluffy cow followers this is ultimately about food.

“The naysayers worry that people will somehow liken a fluffy cow to a teddy bear or a pet, and that’s why I’ve developed the graphics to visually remind them that these are livestock animals that nourish people,” he says. “It’s great for our kids to be reminded of this lesson, as well. Overall, I think the positives have far outweighed the negatives.”

This year’s fair and livestock show attire will likely feature Fluffy Cows R Us t-shirts, and the crowds may just be larger than normal, the stands packed with the curious as well as show ring regulars. Both the old faithful and newcomers may stop for a burger or steak on the way home. That’s what Lautner is hoping for, that the attention will lead to a positive beef image and industry growth.

Fluffly cows cast light on beef

“The Fluffy Cow page will hopefully keep fueling the love folks have for these cattle,” Lautner says. “I will keep posting photos, as well as educational beef factoids, to keep folks engaged while they are educated about our business. Hopefully, they think about us the next time there is something negative about beef in the news. We are trying to show the great side of the industry, and I hope the fluffy cow trend reflects that.”