Yesterday was our big Country Living Expo event, where each year, one has the challenging dilemma of choosing just five classes to take out of a few hundred. We had the good luck of securing Temple Grandin as a presenter this year, and I was eager to see her speak in person. Her talk was good, though if you are already familiar with her work, it was kind of a “Temple Grandin 101” speech about cattle handling. But I think Dr. Grandin never fails to be an interesting and engaging speaker!

She spoke for just under an hour, then the whole second hour was left open for questions. I am not a good auditory leaner, so I often take notes during a lecture just so I pay attention and retain more, even if some of it is stuff I’ve already heard or read. Here are some randomized snippets of stuff I wrote down during her speech and question-answering. Plus, one boring photo of sheep and dogs in deadgrass winter, just because a post needs a photo, ya know? I wasn’t as clever as you-know-who-you-are who managed to have a photo taken with Temple Grandin so she could put it on Facebook! Winking smile 

  • Separation distress from weaning (both for mothers and babies) is different from fear – two separate biological systems driving those things
  • Sudden novelty is often what evokes fear in livestock. Even horses bucking on transition from one gait to another are often reacting to the way the saddle changes in feel at different gaits. When horses switch their tails, they are starting to show agitation, that’s a good time to stop the lesson on a good note, before things escalate to bucking.
  • Really look carefully for visual distractions in handling systems- shadows, bright sunlight, flapping things, cars parked in the background, stop gates hanging partway down into the opening: all of these things are going to make an animal hesitate or balk, and they slow down the flow. Try to get rid of these things, or build solid walls to block out things like parking lots, from view.
  • Visual distractions in chutes and handling systems are often more disturbing to “new” animals- animals that have never been there before, or animals born this year that have not yet acclimated. Versus mature dairy cows are very relaxed in their home environment, even if you put something new in there that’s flapping or strange-looking, they’ll probably be OK with it.
  • For things like a mud puddle in a gate opening, all the animals are going to stop and balk. At the moment, of course you can’t get rid of the mud puddle. If you give the lead animal some time to stop and take a look, she may decide it’s ok, and go through it, which will convince the rest of the group to follow. So, give them time to consider their dilemma, don’t push too hard, or they’ll all turn and refuse to go in.
  • The attitude of the handler does matter in how livestock behave and react. This has now been measured scientifically. When considering employees, most people can be taught to be good handlers, even if they lack innate skills. But there are a few people who just can’t or won’t get it, and will be continually abusive to animals, even when supervised. Those people need to be removed from the operation.
  • When building chutes, it’s good to have 4-5 animal lengths in the chute. This leverages following behavior. If the chute is shorter, you’ll fight a bit to get every animal in; versus if it’s loaded, the next animals will tend to follow and walk right in on their own.
  • Only fill crowd pens about half-full with animals. Don’t jamb-pack them, the animals can’t move as freely, and this will affect flow.
  • Crowding gates should be solid, it’s one more visual barrier that helps move animals away from that gate, and cuts down on them trying to bash into it and push it back into you.
  • If animals are jumpy and kicking in the chute, it’s usually because there are people standing inside the flight zone there. Make sure the people are walking outside of the flight zone, and angling away as they walk, to keep chute animals calm.
  • Solid welded-panel gates can be expensive. But just strapping some plywood to a regular tube gate works. Or,  you can even tie some cardboard onto, for example, the back half of the squeeze chute. This will often do the trick to keep an animal calm in there, if they can’t see the person at the back who’s handling the controls.
  • When making bends in the chute, make sure they can see two animal lengths ahead. If the turn is too tight, it discourages moving forward.
  • An 8’ crowd gate is ok for sheep. Use a min of a 10’ crowd gate for cattle.
  • When using a crowd gate, don’t wheel it all the way closed and “squish” the animals into the chute. Rather, wheel it about one-quarter-of-the-circle closed, then stand at the center post and encourage the animals around with a flag and your pressure.
  • “Bud Box”- a simple chute/sorting system that can be built from panels in the middle of a field. Doesn’t work as well as a more elaborate, curving system, but it does work. Takes advantage of the fact that animals want to go back where they came from. So you are pushing them into a chute that’s at the opening of the gate that they just came through, so they tend to want to go that way.
  • In squeeze chutes, there is an optimal amount of pressure, not too much, not too little. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if an animal is crashing around in there, that you should squeeze more to get them to stop; it might be that it’s already uncomfortably tight and you need to release pressure.
  • Don’t over-select for temperament, as it can come with other genetic baggage you don’t want. Especially in mothers: we want mothers to have an adequate amount of vigilance, otherwise, they are bad mothers who tend to not protect their babies or are too casual about leaving them behind. Rather, just cull the “nut cases” in your herd, to keep from moving the average towards more difficult to handle animals.
  • Try to make sure an animal’s first experience with equipment or a location is good. They remember that first experience a long time, so if it was a bad one, it’s hard to overcome that first impression and re-train them. Rather, in a new handling system, run them through it a few times in a way that’s low stress; maybe before you start using it for vaccinations, de-worming or other stressful things.
  • Reward good behavior when opening gates. Especially in pasture rotation. If they are pushing and shoving, don’t open the gate. Wait for calm, then open it. You don’t want to reinforce the crazy migration behavior, otherwise, it just causes other problems- e.g. then they leave all their babies behind in the rush, and you have a bunch of stressed babies to try to chase through the gate.
  • Novel things are attractive, only if an animal can volunteer to investigate it on his own. So, if you want them to acclimate to something, stick it in the pasture and leave them to check it out on their own terms.
  • Animals are very context-specific in their learning and memories. E.g. you can acclimate them to a frightening umbrella opening, but that learning won’t translate to being calm around a flapping tarp. Totally different thing and context.
  • She repeated several times the notion of “bad becoming normal.” That we should watch out for this everywhere. Examples are when conformation problems become so prevalent people stop noticing them; same with temperament problems, poor animal treatment and handling practices, or even meat palatability. We must measure things which are important to us, otherwise, they can tend to backslide without us being aware.
  • Beta-agonist use in feed: she referred to concerns about this several times. I wasn’t familiar with the term, so looked it up, this seems like a good summary here.
  • She mentioned her white paper titled Animal Welfare and Society Concerns – Finding the Missing Link. Note-to-self to read. This was on the topic of educating the public on farming and all the good things that are happening. She mentioned how the Internet magnifies the voice of the radicals. But we cannot change the opinion of radicals. Where we should be focusing our education effort is the rest of the public, the people in the middle, who would either be influenced by the radicals, or by us.
  • She’s concerned about how so many kids are now growing up with no exposure to animals, not even a pet gerbil… That younger generations are becoming very dissociated from the world of animals. In the UK, she cited a study where half of young people under age 25 could not connect pigs with bacon. 30% of kids in the US have never been on a farm. We need to correct for this disconnect, invite people to farms, expose and educate them. She laments that the livestock industry has made so many improvements in the last few decades, but we are not promoting those stories enough.
  • On genetic selection: when we select solely for maximum production, we tend to shorten productive life (unless we also select for long productive life!). Select for optimal, not maximal.
  • Bad behavior in a herd spreads. So again, get rid of the “nut jobs” in your herd, or their obnoxiousness will tend to influence the calmer animals in that direction.
  • On orphan-rears: animals do best if they are raised the natural way, with other animals, in the proper herd/social structure of their species. This is where they learn give-and-take as they grow up. When we take them out of that environment, such as with orphan-rears, they miss out on a lot of that learning, and can become obnoxious in their precociousness. This can later translate into a large adult animal that’s dangerous, because it has not learned enough give-and-take, and respectful, polite behavior.
  • Genetics for grass-fed versus grain-fed are not the same. Smaller framed animals do better in a grass-fed environment, and can fatten better on grass. Breeds or individuals bred for optimization in grain-fed operations often cannot do well on grass alone.
  • EBVs and genomics: these are good and powerful tools, but be careful with them. They are like power tools, they can get the job done a lot faster, but it’s easier to cut your arm off with a power saw than with a hand saw! Smile Emphasized again, breed for optimal, not maximal.
  • Rest of world doesn’t castrate male animals much, US and the Americas is where it’s most prevalent. She contemplates whether we over-castrate here, then find ourselves using growth promoters to try to compensate for taking away the natural growth hormones present in a male animal.
  • Re: rearing a lot of intact males. For rest of world, it works. No concerns about “taint” in ruminants (maybe in pigs, however). The biggest key is keeping the same male group as pen-mates through all the stages. Don’t mix and match them, or sort them off and change the groupings, this will encourage conflict and stress. And some males are just fighters more than others. Often you can introduce a new male and the group sorts out their hierarchy quickly and get to peace, other males will continue to create conflict forever.
  • Regarding “boar taint” in pigs, she does believe it exists and finds it very unpalatable personally. She wonders if it’s related to early puberty and a lot of hormones and aggression. She’s seem hog farms in Germany where the males were all very mellow together; versus Dutch farms where there was lots of aggression and bad behavior amongst males.
  • Genomics: allows for accelerated selection of desired traits, you don’t have to wait for a good sample size of progeny to determine whether an animal possesses the traits you’re striving for. But again, this is a very powerful tool that can be used improperly and cause more damage than good.
  • Often when you select for growth, you sacrifice fertility. This is why people often maintain separate sire and dam lines. You want your dams to have genes for moderate/good growth, to retain their fertility features; and terminal sire lines, it’s ok to go for max growth.
  • Ruminants have lousy depth perception. Their eyes are designed to see best when their head is down, grazing, they can see a wide periphery of things coming at them at that angle. This is why they often lower their heads when assessing danger, they can see best at that angle. The have dichromatic vision: can see color, but no red receptors. They can see contrast more vividly than we do, which is why things like mud puddles and shadows are a big deal to them.
  • Someone asked about an animal that never seemed to get over a trauma on the milkstand, always shakes now. She feels that this is genetic: some animals are able to “get over it” eventually and replace one bad memory with many neutral ones; where others have more of a PTSD-like effect, where that bad memory surfaces for them forever, and causes them distress, no matter how much desensitization you do to help them forget the incident.
  • Biological overload: when we push animals too hard physically with maximum feeding, or breeding for extreme traits. At some point, we cross the threshold where they actually become less productive over their lives than an animal that’s more moderate in both genetics and husbandry.
  • Re: statistics that accuse beef of being a major carbon footprint, bigger footprint than cars. These metrics are skewed: they take into account the entire lifecycle of the cow, but not the entire lifecycle of the car. If you account for the carbon footprint of designing and building the car, and obtaining and transporting its fuel, then cars definitely outweigh cattle by a long shot in carbon footprint. Plus, these statistics fail to acknowledge that most range-fed cattle are run on land that can’t be used for anything else, it’s not good for row-cropping. So it’s not like they’re taking away land that could be used more efficiently: they are using land that would otherwise be useless from a productivity standpoint.

So that’s it, that’s my potpourri of thoughts and reflections from my two hours in the same room with Temple Grandin! What a treat to get to see her in person.

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