Future Focused

by Joel Crews
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Grandin says the overriding perception of agriculture is that "big is bad" when it comes to food production.

Having recently celebrated her 67th birthday, Dr. Temple Grandin isn’t counting down the days until she collects social security checks from a rocking chair and she’s not planning on receiving a gold watch or delivering a retirement speech anytime soon. Her company, Grandin Livestock Systems is thriving; her work as an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ. and her mentoring of graduate students is as vibrant as ever; and her travel schedule still takes her all over the world, whether consulting with processing plants or making a speech about autism.

This past month, as she has each year since 1999, Grandin made the sojourn to Kansas City for the American Meat Institute Foundation’s Animal Care & Handling Conference, where she held court and addressed welfare issues in many meeting rooms and conference halls and didn’t hesitate to broadcast her phone number to crowds of hundreds of attendees. In between sessions, Grandin signed copies of her many books displayed for sale on a skirted table in the registration area. During breaks at the event if she noticed someone at the table buying a book she dutifully made herself available to sign a purchased copy.

Investing in the future

During breakfast before the second day of the conference, Grandin admits she’s not getting any younger and advocates that the industry needs to ensure future generations are exposed to careers in agriculture. To that point, this past month, Grandin and fellow animal science professor Gary Smith each donated $250,000 toward the construction costs to expand the animal science facilities at CSU. The expanded building will include the “Temple Grandin Animal Handling and Education Center,” with designated areas to teach about handling livestock in a Grandin-designed, fully equipped livestock arena. The unofficial foundation for her legacy has been in the making for decades and this is another rigid layer. Her philanthropy is indicative of a concern she and others in the industry have about sustaining agricultural programs at universities. For Grandin, a big part of the reason for the donation is “to attract students for one thing.” She adds: “When I give money to something I like to know exactly where it goes.”

Perception matters

The issues facing meat and poultry companies today when it comes to animal welfare is a sharp contrast to even a decade ago, when the emphasis was on adopting auditing criteria and the logistics of unloading and handling livestock at slaughtering facilities. Evidenced by the presentation topics featured during more recent Animal Care & Handling Conferences, retailers and foodservice companies and their customers want to know the food suppliers are doing the right thing, and now more than ever: perception is reality. And if that perception is skewed by the latest undercover video footage depicting cruelty to animals, the industry takes a collective body blow, which explains why more sessions at such conferences are focused on transparency, telling the industry’s story and spreading truth.

 

 Dr. Temple Grandin

An overriding perception today is “big is bad” when it comes to food production. Grandin says she recently had a revelation while teaching a welfare class: “Big is not bad, it’s extremely fragile.” Thinking visually, she says the vulnerability of the industry occurred to her when she remembered a widespread ice storm that ravaged the Midwest in the early 2000s. She envisioned power lines stretching hundreds of miles were coated with inches of ice, bending electrical towers under all the weight. “If ice had taken out both of the lines on those electric towers feeding the plants, we’d be down.” Likewise, the image of large scale agriculture is also fragile and has many points of vulnerability.

Grandin says there is always room for improvement and specific segments in the food chain warrant significant attention.

“The dairy industry really needs to clean up their act,” she says as an example and allowing dairy cows to become too debilitated before bringing them to slaughter is not acceptable and cannot be the norm. “You have got to have an animal you can handle,” she says.

“Ten years ago you had pig videos that are like the dairy videos are now.” More often than not, the recent undercover videos are likely to depict castration or gestation stalls, which is comparatively mild and sometimes involve cases of accepted standards in the industry that are often shocking to the public. “The videos that are out now that show blatant abuse that no one can defend are from the dairy industry,” Grandin says. “They’ve got to get real serious.”

Meanwhile, the public’s awareness of lameness in animals is almost nonexistent, an irony that is puzzling to Grandin. “When it comes to welfare, I think lameness is a gigantic issue, especially in dairy cattle,” she says, but consumers don’t seem to be concerned about it at all.

The gestation stall issue still lingers as well and today, there are two issues at stake, according to Grandin. “It may just be a perception issue, but two-thirds of the public don’t accept gestation stalls,” she says. It’s one thing to use stalls and completely another to put sows in them that don’t fit. Grandin says recent research has found that guilds have room and can lie on their sides in gestation stalls, so it’s a matter of space. “There’s no research that supports putting a sow in a stall that’s so small she can’t lie on her side.” Among those operations where group housing has been adopted, most report positive results, but Grandin points out that there are certain breeds that don’t get along in a group setting, creating a whole other set of problems.

Eye on education

While in Brazil this past May, Grandin and JBS signed an agreement to intensify and improve the company’s animal handling performance in the country. As an extension of the work Grandin has done in previous years with JBS facilities in the US, she will validate the animal well-being practices adopted by JBS in Brazil, which will be audited by Mateus Paranhos, Ph.D. Validating animal welfare practices at all JBS units in Brazil, including feedlots is part of the agreement. During her visit, Grandin was encouraged by signs that the future of animal welfare is in good hands.

Grandin believes students studying animal agriculture should be exposed to what goes on up and down the food chain.

“There are a lot of young, good students down in Brazil,” she says. The enthusiasm of young people studying agriculture not only in Brazil, but also Uruguay is a reason for optimism. “They have a lot of young people who are really gung-ho,” she says, compared to a majority of those working in ag in the US. “You look at our cattle industry and it’s made up of people who are all my age.” Industry conferences and tradeshows in Brazil, on the other hand, are well attended by young people who create energy and enthusiasm, she says. “I don’t think we’ve done enough to reach out to young students,” says Grandin referencing the prevalence of “grey hairs” at meetings and conferences in the US. “I think I can use the phrase ‘grey hair’ because I am one now,” she adds with a smirk.

She says the issue is exacerbated by the fact that many students in today’s universities studying animal science are taking the classes as prerequisites for veterinarian school. Grandin estimates as much as 70 percent of animal science students are pre-vet because “that’s the only animal thing they’re exposed to,” she says. And the only way to develop a passion for the industry and to ensure the progress made on the animal welfare front continues is to expose kids to what goes on up and down the food chain. For Grandin, that exposure began when she was 14 years old, when she was exposed to dairy cows and then it continued at age 15 when she went to work at her aunt’s ranch in Arizona. “You’ve got to expose kids to interesting things to get them interested in things,” she says. “We’ve got kids out there who don’t know where anything comes from.”

She says the prestige associated with many jobs in agriculture has diminished, which influences the career paths chosen by young people today. “There used to be respect for stockmanship jobs,” says Grandin, adding that these jobs are very highly skilled, but are losing ground to students gravitating to careers in the urban core.

Part of the challenge in getting future generations to fill the eventual void created by the grey hairs, is the motivation given to college instructors. “The incentives for professors are: Bring in grant money and publish papers. Those aren’t the right incentives to get students turned on.” The pursuit of grants is too often the goal while motivating students too often takes a back seat. “This is just the reality,” Grandin says.

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