“People who like animals have more productive animals. It’s that simple.”
Temple Grandin can talk livestock animal welfare all day, but her message ultimately boils down to that idea. Those in attendance at her presentation during the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association convention June 13 heard that loud and clear.
Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who built her research career on revolutionizing livestock handling and is also well known as a spokesperson for the autistic community, delivered a passionate keynote presentation to the roomful of beef producers. Over three decades of research, she has developed dozens of techniques and designs with the goal of reducing stress in livestock animals and studying the effects of that reduction on production.
Much of her research is based on the premise that livestock animals, cattle in particular, are visual thinkers and follow visual cues as their primary means of understanding the world around them. As she points out, “a man on the ground and a man on a horse are two different things to a cow.” That means anyone handling cattle needs to recognize that the animal doesn’t see him or her as an individual and certainly not as some authority figure.
Grandin also advocates keeping noise and any other stimuli to a minimum around cattle and keeping their mental well-being in mind during every step of the production process. One of her fundamental principles is steering clear of the “flight zone,” an imaginary circle around the animal in which any encroachment will cause stress, unless absolutely necessary. Her own experience with autism – she considers herself a “visual thinker” and has dealt with her own reactions to stimuli overload since she was a toddler – helped guide her understanding of the stress triggers for livestock.
"Animals that fear people are less productive. That's a fact."
She says handlers need to watch for signs of stress in animals - heads up, ears pinned back, defecation, tail switching, eye whites – an respond accordingly. While it may seem onerous at the time, the results are worth the effort. It pays dividends to spending extra time making sure a cow’s first experiences in pens, chutes, etc. are good ones.
“Animals that fear people are less productive,” she said. “That’s a fact.”
That translates into practices that don’t include prods - “Electric prods are NEVER the primary driving aid,” she says emphatically – and making sure that possible stressors, such as hanging chains in chutes, are removed.
Other tips include:
Grandin has developed a number of designs for chutes and pens that follow the cow’s natural desire to return to where they came from, reducing stress on the animals. She admits they’re more expensive to build, but they ultimately pay producers back in more productive cows. They’re also easier for unskilled people to use.
In addition to proper handling techniques, producers need to be vigilant with the animals during every phase of production. Grandin strongly recommends watching cows as they come out of the shoot for any signs of stress, whether they run or fall, and whether they vocalize when they’re caught. “Lameness is an outcome of many bad decisions,” she points out. If you don’t catch the early warning signs, you’ll deal with the consequences on the other end.
Though an advocate for improved practices in livestock production, Grandin also had praise for the beef industry for advancements made over the years. She says she has no problem praising the current state of the industry, particularly when it comes to slaughter methods. First-shot stunning rates that sat at only 30 per cent a few decades ago have risen to 99.7 per cent as of 2015.
“I didn’t think it could get that good,” she said.
Grandin, who also spoke about her perspective as a person with autism to a crowd of some 1,800 people at the Conexus Centre on June 12, also strongly advised producers to consider recruiting workers from the autism spectrum. Like her, she says, many young people are looking for something to focus on, away from offices and places teeming with coworkers. Once introduced to farm life, she suspects many have the potential to become long-term employees.
“It would be much better to see them on the farm instead of in their basements playing video games for the rest of their lives,” she says.
Much more information on Grandin’s research, methods and deigns are available at her website, grandin.com.