The time has come to rethink single-trait selection

Temple Grandin was right about animal welfare, and she’s right 
about respecting the dual purpose of food animals, too

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I am a big fan of Dr. Temple Grandin. A long time ago we stood in a small community hall in Alberta with 60 farmers in attendance. She talked about an animal’s reaction to light, movement, and sound, and encouraged producers to see their facilities through the eyes of their livestock. I talked about shrinkage and creative marketing. As Dr. Grandin said, “They told us we were crazy.” We were both paid $80.

Today Dr. Grandin is known in every corner of the world and is the world leader in animal behaviour and welfare. She is mentoring a new generation of students and her handling designs are scattered around the globe from farmers’ yards through to processing floors. I had the opportunity to share the stage with her 30 years later where she talked about animal behaviour and welfare and I tied it into creative marketing. This time there were 600 people and no one was laughing.

Having crawled through my corrals and looked at her suggestions in those early years, I saw the relevance in what she said. It was easy to change a little here and there, and most certainly I could change my pattern of behaviour around the cattle.

Open minds and honest voices create change, and as a leader in this area Dr. Grandin has influenced producers and processors for decades. Recently, she was asked about what she sees emerging in the industry and in her no-nonsense approach, she had some harsh words for the dairy industry. It is an industry she says that has forgotten that dairy cattle serve two purposes: as a producer of milk and as a source of beef. In her own words, beef is the dairy cow’s “second career.”

I grew up on a dairy farm in Alberta. The cows did not have a 1.5 lactation production life — we milked them for a decade. To do this we focused on multiple-trait selection and animal care. Whenever an industry goes for single-trait selection — such as milk in dairy or gain in beef — there will be a cost somewhere else. In the case of hogs, the breeding programs for performance often resulted in leg issues. In chickens, we see the breeding programs for breast result in the same “front heavy” problems that contribute to discomfort. As in dairy, the beef industry struggles with lameness in cattle on high-performance diets. The change here is not how we handled the cattle but in how we have bred them. This single-trait breeding creates animal welfare issues and leaves little but scrap for their secondary purpose.

It is Dr. Grandin who said that “animals are here for our use, we need to respect that,” — and it is she who went on to make this usefulness and end of life less stressful for them. When cattle or fowl can’t walk, folks get impatient and that is when things go really sideways. We have been busted as a food industry in several videos that have gone public. Farmers may then lock the barn door, but locking the door is not the solution. Creating an environment that looks at the multiple function and design of the food animal lends itself to improvement.

Animal husbandry and handling has improved tremendously through the encouraging and tireless work and words of one woman. And if the problem is the solution, then genetic selection can turn the tide in genetic problems.

In our quest for instant wealth and extreme performance, we may have lost sight of the real ‘value’ of our food animal. A short lifespan means less manure which is a valuable resource. It means intense diets that are costly, move away from the natural ability of cattle to graze, and cramps the natural structure of the bovine who is designed to have her head down eating. There is a higher cost in service as extreme performance affects fertility, and fertility is an economic driver in all animal agriculture. Most importantly, if an animal is lame, there is a threshold of pain that at some point is production negative.

As for the idea of a second career, the beef industry is made up of fed and commercial beef. It is the commercial beef that comes from bulls, cows and open heifers that is vital to processing profitability. When the dairy cow comes in slowly (which is costly to the line) and without much left on her bones because it is all in her bag, then it has a huge impact on the beef industry, even when dairy cattle are now on a short production cycle.

Perhaps we can find solutions together. The dairy farmers I know are very focused on the health and welfare of their cows. They are stewards of a production animal that is entrusted to their care. And although they are besieged by lameness and infertility because of single-trait selection, genetics selection can change that. In my travels I have seen the other barns as well — the ones with the closed doors and there has been no joy in that. They need a Dr. Grandin to move them off the old production wheel and into the future.

The evolution of the food animal has always been based on the multifunction of that animal in the eco-agro system. It is because of them that man has evolved to live longer. We can still house in barns and focus on performance so society has the milk and milk products it needs at a reasonable cost. But it does not remove the industry from continued improvement in animal welfare right to end of life. Nor can we turn away from addressing the critical issues of the day co-operatively as dairy and beef producers. The dairy cow is a respected servant to both industries.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at All rights reserved.



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