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Temple Grandin - Author, Animal Scientist, Pioneer

posted on May 10, 2013

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Drought and other factors took a heavy toll on the livestock industry last year, according to a new study from South Dakota State University Extension.

According to SDSU’s Center for Farm and Ranch Business Management, high feed prices dramatically reduced profitability in 2012 – particularly in the dairy sector.

According to the study, the average South Dakota dairy producer endured losses of $398 per cow in 2012, after enjoying profits of $707 per head in 2011. Cow-calf operators fared better, but still reported an average loss of $27 per head last year, compared to gains of $88 per head in 2011. So far, 2013 isn’t looking much better. And -- as fate would have it – feed costs are rising now not because of drought, but because conditions are too wet for farmers to plant.

As livestock producers cope with financial losses it may seem odd to consider the conditions endured by the animals. But that’s exactly what’s made one scientist a household name in livestock circles. And for Temple Grandin, paying attention to the details pays dividends for producers, processors and consumers. David Miller explains.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “Things have gotten better at slaughterhouses. I’m not going to call them harvest plants that’s just PR BS. I used it in Hollywood and they didn’t have a problem with it.”

Dr. Temple Grandin, author, feedlot designer, industry consultant and animal scientist, is speaking to a gathering of farmers at an annual Iowa Farm Bureau meeting.  Grandin arguably is one of the most outspoken and influential leaders in the industry.  The results of her work are evident from the feedlot gate to the packing plant stun-line.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “You need to open the mystery sheds.”

 For nearly four decades, Grandin has worked to increase awareness of how proper animal handling in the feedlot and at the packing plant is good for animals as well as the bottom line. She has combined innovative facility design, lectures and hands-on classroom work to achieve her goals of efficient and humane treatment of animals. But achieving that goal was anything but easy.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “Breaking into a man's world was really difficult but there were some enlightened, good people in the industry.  And they were some of the people that hired me.  Actually, I found selling the design actually was quite easy.  The thing that was hard was getting people to not beat up the cattle.  Oh, the handling of cattle in the 70s was so awful.  I would work at places when we'd put in new facilities and they do atrocious things to the cattle in the new facility.  People would buy the thing but they wouldn't operate it right.”

 Grandin’s designs protect animal and handler while reducing stress for both. In the feedlot, her curved chute design takes advantage of the tendency for cattle to circle back to where they started. Races are just wide enough for one animal to easily walk towards a squeeze chute and one-way back-stops prevent any attempts at retreat.  Elevated walkways and trap doors give employees escape routes.

At the packing plant, holding pens have angled sides instead of square corners and alleyways have non-slip surfaces.  As animals approach the stun-line, they are herded into to a long serpentine chute. The curved walkway relaxes the cattle and allows them to follow each other nose-to-tail.

When the animals approach the stun-box they are supported by a center-track restrainer system designed by Grandin.

Her research -- and real world results – have proven the animals are easier to handle and produce a better product.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “Now, today, we've got a lot more interest in good handling.  And I worked with McDonald's Corporation back in 1999 on implementing animal welfare auditing.  And when I did that, I saw lots of change happen because now the plants had to do it if they wanted to stay on the approved supplier list.” 

To stay on the list, suppliers had to pass Grandin’s animal welfare audit with high marks. That meant 95 percent of the animals had to be stunned on the first attempt, no more than 1 percent could fall on the way to the stun-line, no more than 3 percent could be mooing or bellowing and 75 percent had to move through the line without the use of an electric prod.

Grandin has autism and she has devoted a good portion of her life to helping others with the same affliction.  She tells people with autism to avoid thinking that their disability comes first, but instead to identify themselves as a person who has unique qualities that happens to have autism. Grandin will be the first to tell you that because of her autism she thinks in pictures.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “When I was very young I thought that everybody thought in pictures.  I didn't know that my thinking was different.  I didn't know that other people thought more verbally.  So the very first work I did with cattle was to get down into the chutes to see all the stuff that the cattle were seeing like shadows, reflections on puddles, a coat on a fence, a vehicle parked next to the fence and I noticed that these things would make the cattle flock and nobody had noticed it before but since I thought in pictures it seemed obvious to look at what the cattle were seeing. It was obvious to me.”

Her direct, off-the-cuff style has earned accolades from a wide range of groups – who rarely agree on anything. They range from the American Meat Institute to PETA.

Grandin believes the veil needs to come off the meat industry and she is adamantly opposed to ag-gag laws that make it a crime to shoot undercover video at packing plants or on farms.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “I think the ag-gag bills are the stupidest thing that ag ever did because when that hit the editorial page of the New York Times, and I was in New York the time that happened, that just looked like cover up, cover up, cover up.  You know, when you get bashed you need to be opening the door, not shutting it.”

In the interest of transparency, Grandin is working with the American Meat Instituteto take the mystery out of what happens inside a packing plant.

Bill Couser owns the 5,200-head Couser Cattle Company near Nevada, Iowa. The design of his feedlot was inspired by a lecture Grandin gave almost 25 years ago.

Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: “Well, after seeing her speech that many years ago, we came back home and went to work because now we understood why animals weren't moving correctly and why we were seeing the stress.”

Recently, Couser built a handling facility based on Grandin’s design. Couser considers the half-million dollar investment well worth the money.

Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: “I've seen a dramatic change in my employees, especially my feedlot manager.  It used to be when we would get multiple loads of cattle in, um, you kind of tried to put it off a little bit.  You know, it wasn't something that you looked forward to.  ...And it's nothing to come in here and process them.”

In December of 2012, Couser got to meet with Grandin and express his gratitude.

Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company: “ was such an experience, a thrill and an honor to sit this close to a woman that has meant so much to all of us in this industry, livestock industry.   ...and when she says something, I mean, you're just writing it down in your brain as you go because it's almost gospel when you're listening to her because you believe what she says.”

Grandin’s work goes beyond being a spokesperson for low stress animal handling. Since 1990, she has been a professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. For more than two decades, she has taught a short course on feedlot design, animal handling and general problem solving. Many among this next generation of ranchers, feedlot owners and veterinarians travel long distances just to learn from Grandin.

Pleased to no longer be a lone crusader, Grandin believes there are several reasons why it is easier for her to get the average person to listen to her message.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Author, Animal Scientist, Agricultural Consultant: “I think some of this is, you know, big customers demanding it and the other thing I think is every phone is a video camera now with an instant Internet hookup and I think that's another factor.  Because I've had a saying I've had for a long time, heat softens steel.  And then reformers like me can bend it in to pretty grill work.  And the thing is I want to bend it in to pretty grill work, not just have a mess.  We've got to do practical things that are going to work.”

Tags: American Meat Institute animal science autism cattle Colorado State University feedlot hogs Temple Grandin


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