Attention to detail characterizes animal scientist's work
Well-known animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin, who spoke at UC Davis last week, is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
The little details say a lot about an animal's frame of mind and its environment, according to animal scientist Temple Grandin.
As one of the most accomplished and well-known adults with high-functioning autism, Grandin can't help but notice details and constantly struggles with sensory overload. But her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli also helps her to see things as animals do, and that in turn has allowed her to become an influential animal advocate and leading designer of livestock handling facilities.
"Animals notice little details," she said. "Keeping animals comfortable is attention to detail. Too often people want the magic thing: the new computer, the new drug or something more than doing good stockmanship and attention to detail."
Grandin visited the University of California, Davis, last week for a lecture on her experience as an animal behaviorist and to share her insights into how animals think, act and feel. She has authored several books on animals and autism, including "Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding Livestock Behavior and Building Facilities for Healthier Animals." Her latest book, "Animals Make Us Human," draws from nearly 30 years of research, experimentation and experience.
She said when she first started working in animal agriculture in the 1970s, she went to feed yards to watch how cattle were handled and observed the animals balking at shadows, reflections and little things that other people didn't notice.
She even got down to the level of the animals, to see what they were seeing. Since animals are very sensitive to rapid movement and high contrast of light and dark, details such as shiny metal of hanging chains, flapping coats on a fence or vehicles going by could cause animals unease. Therefore, eliminating such distractions help facilitate their movement, she said.
"She knows how to objectively assess the welfare of the animal," said Carolyn Stull, an animal welfare specialist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "She has a lot of experience working with animals and things that a lot of other people have never taken the courage to go into and improve and help."
Using her unique perspective, Grandin has designed numerous livestock facilities, including corrals for handling cattle on ranches and systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and processing.
She's probably best known for designing livestock handling facilities with curved lanes that make use of cattle's natural circling behavior. This design concept has also been applied to systems for meatpacking plants.
"Her business is about looking at things with that critical eye and actually improving the management of the animal so that there's less frustration on the human side and elimination of distress on the animal side," said Ria de Grassi, California Farm Bureau Federation director of livestock, animal health and welfare.
Grandin, who teaches animal science at Colorado State University, has also developed animal welfare guidelines and auditing programs for various animal agriculture sectors, and has provided consulting to companies such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Niman Ranch. Today, half the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in equipment she has designed for meat plants, including those in California.
Tom Talbot, an Inyo County cattle rancher, veterinarian and president of the California Cattlemen's Association, said he's been familiar with Grandin's career for many years and praised the work she's done with cattle.
"I think she's been a good friend of our industry," he said. "She's been very innovative in designing cattle facilities."
Grandin said handling livestock humanely is not only the right thing to do for the animal but also beneficial to the livestock operation.
"If you handle cattle quietly, you're going to have a lot less bruises," she said. "Rough handling affects immune function. There are gigantic safety advantages for quiet handling of cattle. Animals that stay calm gain more weight. They're less likely to get dark cutters, which is a severe meat quality defect."
Livestock handlers can control the movement of animals if they understand basic principles such as an animal's flight zone, or personal space, and point of balance, which for cattle is typically at the shoulder, she said. Understanding these behavioral principles would minimize the need to prod or force the animals to move.
Simple facility changes could also greatly affect the health and welfare of the animals, she said. Adding solid sides to working alleys helps reduce distractions and shadowing. Welding rods to the floor or using woven tire mats to improve the animal's footing can also make a huge difference because animals panic when they start to slip.
And while having a well-designed facility is important, Grandin said good-working facilities and equipment do not replace good management.
"It starts with the manager or the owner," she said. "If the owners have got a bad attitude, the employees are going to have a bad attitude."
She said owners and managers need to be careful not to understaff their operations and overload their employees to the point where they're going to skip necessary tasks.
It is also important to maintain and repair equipment because employees who have to work with broken equipment will often adopt a negative attitude and poor morale. Owners should be mindful that employees doing repetitive work such as milking cows or loading animals will become tired after about six hours and their performance goes down.
"I think we have to look at everything we do in farming and say, 'If I brought my wedding guests out here, what are they going to think of it?'" Grandin said. "The tendency in the industry when you get bashed is to hide behind a bigger and bigger fence. That's the last thing you should be doing. I think we need to clean up that act and show stuff to the public."
De Grassi noted that Grandin never minces words and delivers her animal handling and behavior messages in unadorned fashion.
"She is as direct in praising good handling as she is candid about what isn't," she said. "At the end of the day, it's clear that Temple is improving animal welfare for the benefit of the handler and animal alike."
Michelle Ganci, a professor of animal science at California State University, Fresno, and vice chairwoman of the CFBF Animal Health and Welfare Advisory Committee, said farmers and ranchers should look to Grandin as a "fresh set of eyes" to help them do a better job with raising their animals.
"She has an innate ability to study and look at the details," she said. "So when we're looking at our operations and looking at the way we raise our animals, we need to pay attention to some of those details and make sure that we are doing the best that we can do for the care of our animals. And that's what she professes."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.