Farmers, you have issues — downer dairy cows, structurally unsound cattle, and osteoporosis so bad in laying hens that huge numbers of them suffer broken bones.
That’s the latest message from world-renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin, and it comes with a stark warning: Producers need to address these issues before society steps in and dictates change.
In her most recent presentations, the professor of animal science at Colorado State University and bestselling author has been talking about how feedlots and slaughterhouses have dramatically improved their practices. And how it’s now the turn of primary producers to do the same.
“When I go to a slaughterhouse, I’m seeing problems I have to fix at the farm,” Grandin told Alberta Farmer at the Society for Range Management meeting in Sacramento, Calif. last month.
“I get concerned about pushing biology too hard.”
The cattle industry has enthusiastically used Expected Progeny Differences in breeding programs, but Grandin said it has gone overboard. The result is animals with large muscle frames that produce large amounts of meat, but with small legs that cannot support the weight, as well as cardiovascular problems, she said.
There is a simple solution: Address leg conformation issues when breeding and wisely employ advances in genomics, she said.
“With these breeding power tools (genomics), we can really make change fast,” she said. “A power tool is a good thing, but you have to use it carefully so you don’t have problems.”
“Biological overload” is also a major issue in milk and egg production, she said.
The unceasing push for more milk from dairy cows had resulted in more lameness and reproduction issues, while layers suffer a high incidence of bone fractures because increased egg production has led to depletion of calcium in the bones of hens.
“Twenty to 80 per cent of old laying hens have broken bones due to osteoporosis,” said Grandin, citing a University of Bristol study.
The beef industry has issues, too. For example, beta-agonists, especially when used during hot weather, contribute to stiff, sore cattle, and worsens leg conformation issues, she said.
“They still have to live on the range. You mess them up too much, they are not going to function like a beef cow should. They are not going to mother up.”
Honestly confronting problems leads to meaningful change, said the 67-year-old, who drew on her experience as someone with autism to better understand animal behaviour and then used those insights to advise meat packers and feedlots to revamp their systems and handling procedures.
“Handling has really improved, slaughterhouses have really improved,” she said. “That’s due to McDonald’s audits, which I’ve helped implement, and USDA getting more strict.”
She pointed to a Kansas State University study of 28 feedlots. Average prod use had fallen to 5.5 per cent and since the majority of the cattle were calmly walking or trotting out of the chute, trips and falls were under one per cent.
So what’s her solution to issues on individual livestock operations?
Grandin’s advice is to take a page from the playbook of slaughterhouses she’s worked with and be fully transparent, instead of sitting back and allowing animal activists to sensationalize the industry’s shortcomings.
“When you get bashed you need to be opening the door, not closing it,” she said.
Grandin has done this by participating in the North American Meat Institute’s Glass Walls Project, which has created YouTube videos that take viewers inside U.S. cattle, hog, and turkey slaughterhouses. The footage is sometimes graphic — cattle being killed with a bolt gun, their legs kicking because of a spinal reflex that occurs briefly after death. But it’s increasingly important to be open and transparent, she said, adding being on social media is part of that engagement.
Letting the public see what goes on at farms will not only drive reforms in breeding programs, but also inform them about positive contributions of livestock operations, she said. For example, most people have no idea of how livestock benefit the land when proper grazing management is utilized.
“A lot of people think that cattle are ‘evil land wreckers,’” said Grandin. “The general public does not even know (grazing management) exists.”
However, being in the public eye isn’t easy and producers have to be prepared for that, she said.
“I get bashed on both sides,” she said. “I get bashed by animal rights radicals who have called me a ‘Nazi.’ And then there’s some people in ag who have bashed me because I don’t support everything that ag does.”
But retreating into industry “silos” would be a mistake.
“We have to work at cutting down the silos, and it’s not always easy,” she said.
Teaching kids, keeping good help, and social media
Temple Grandin is never afraid to voice an opinion. Here are some of the other topics she addressed in her interview with Alberta Farmer contributor Jill Burkhardt.
On exposing kids to the real world:
“Hands-on classes teach practical problem solving. I’m very concerned today about kids being removed from the world of practical things.”
On finding and keeping good ranch help:
“There is starting to get a lot of interest in low-stress stockmanship, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. There’s a lot of places that can pay for good stockmanship than what they are paying. But they would like to live better than in a trailer.”
On using YouTube and social media:
“What are chores to you is interesting to the public.”