Breeding a healthier livestock industry

Temple Grandin Hero

Improving animal welfare is crucial to long-term sustainability, says livestock expert Temple Grandin.

Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin

Animal scientist Temple Grandin is renowned for both her autism activism and her work to protect animal welfare in the livestock industry. A professor of animal science at Colorado State University, she has authored or coauthored more than 30 books and has also spoken widely about how her own autism gives her insights into how animals think and feel. Grandin’s innovations have reshaped the design of slaughterhouses and other animal handling facilities in North America, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

We need more research into [livestock] breeding for optimal production instead of maximum production.”
— Temple Grandin

Grandin is deeply concerned about large-scale livestock farming, which she believes is breeding animals solely to maximize production of meat, milk and eggs. This approach is causing a new kind of animal welfare problem that Grandin calls “biological system overload”—health problems that are bred into animals. “We’re pushing them until they fall apart,” she says. Grandin talked recently with FutureFood 2050 about how animal welfare can be improved and what that will mean for the future of agriculture.

FutureFood 2050: You have worked for more than 40 years in the livestock industry, and have helped bring about many changes. What do you see as your most significant accomplishment?

Grandin: I developed an objective [scoring] system for slaughter farms that uses numbers to measure how well they perform. What percent of cattle or pigs do they handle with electric prods? What fraction of the animals are squealing? What is their stunning efficacy rate? When I was very young, I thought I could fix everything with equipment. Good equipment makes good treatment possible, but you have to have good management or people don’t use the equipment correctly. The scoring system forces people to manage the process.

When we put that [scoring] system in place for McDonald’s in 1999, I saw more improvement than I had seen in 25 years before that. McDonald’s required plants to get good scores, or it would drop them as suppliers. Large buyers have the economic power to enforce standards.

FutureFood 2050: You’ve called “biological system overload” the next big welfare problem in livestock farming. What do you mean by that?

Grandin: The system focuses on maximum production. When you over-select for single traits, you ruin animals. Laying hens are suffering from osteoporosis and fractures of the keel bone, which is a big bone in the bird’s breast. Hens are pushed so hard biologically to produce eggs that all the hard stuff [calcium and minerals] is being removed from their bones.

In dairy cows, reproduction rates have fallen over the years as milk production rates have risen. People think they can override genetics and breed a cow that makes lots of milk, has lots of calves, and has an immune system that can fight off disease. But it takes energy to make milk, make calves, and maintain that immune system. You can’t feed a cow enough to support all of those functions. Nature has a system: When an animal gets too thin and there’s not enough feed, reproduction shuts down. If the animal does conceive, her body funnels nutrition into the fetus. It takes two years to grow a dairy cow, and they’re only lasting through two lactations.

Biological overload also overruns animals’ immune systems. As one example, there was a huge diarrheal epidemic in pigs last year. I’m worried that we’ll push too hard and cause a big disease outbreak. We need animals to be hardy, and you have to give up a little bit of productivity to get hardiness.

FutureFood 2050: Do you think producers are addressing—or will address—these issues?

Grandin: The broiler chicken industry has made progress. They were getting a lot of damaged chickens with lameness and leg abnormalities, but they are starting to select for criteria other than maximum meat production [such as walking ability and improved general health]. Now the chickens have legs like tree trunks.

One advantage of integration [of the supply chain from growers to producers] is that producers can’t pass losses down the supply chain. When broiler chickens got into a lot of trouble, producers did something about it.

In the cattle system, the market is segmented, so ranchers don’t have an incentive to do something like vaccinating calves before they’re shipped to feedlots if they [ranchers] won’t benefit from it. If they sell through brand-name producers, they’re required to vaccinate their calves first, but small ranchers sell on the open market, and when their calves get sick at the feed yard, they’re not responsible.

FutureFood 2050: You’ve been a strong proponent of such technology as remote video auditing systems to help improve animal health and welfare. What other roles can food science and technology play in better livestock production?

Grandin: We need more research into breeding for optimal production instead of maximum production. Also, we need to understand why some of these physical problems, like poor leg conformation in beef cattle, seem to be linked to breeding for maximum production.

FutureFood 2050: Other countries have adopted the intensive model of animal farming. How do large livestock operations abroad compare with the ones in the United States?

Grandin: I travel abroad to teach other countries how to use animal welfare scoring systems. I’ve been to broiler operations in Thailand, China, South America and Europe, and they all look the same. They use the same breeds of chickens, and they’re getting more and more standardized as big companies take over more of the industry. I wouldn’t have known I was in China if the chicken houses hadn’t had signs posted in Chinese.

Some countries are raising animals more intensively than the United States. In Spain, beef cattle are all raised indoors. A lot of land that can be farmed is being converted to crops. In China I spent hours traveling by car between cities, and I hardly saw any animals outside. I’m afraid that soon Uruguay will have a lot fewer cattle and a lot more biocrops [for biofuel production], and that makes me sad.

FutureFood 2050: As you have pointed out to producers, we live in a media age, and their practices can end up on the Internet. What’s your view of activists who publicize animal welfare issues on farms?

Grandin: Activists sometimes ask for things that aren’t the wisest, because they don’t have field knowledge. When we tell producers to do something, it has to make things better. When I worked with McDonald’s, I didn’t tell them what kind of equipment to install—they just had to improve their scores. Sometimes all that was needed was making repairs or simple modifications, like installing better lighting or non-slip flooring.

But we do have to give animals a life worth living. Right now, animals are in pain. We know how to do things differently, like weaning and vaccinating cattle before they’re shipped to feedlots, but economics make people do the wrong thing.

FutureFood 2050: How do you see livestock farming evolving in the decades ahead?

Grandin: I think countries will keep taking land that can be farmed, turning it into crops, and putting animals inside. There also will be pressure to make more biofuels, which will drive up demand for biocrops and corn stover [the leaves and stalks left in the field after harvest]. We use that for cattle forage now, but if it goes for biofuel, we won’t have it. Intensification [of livestock farming] is a reality.

Jennifer Weeks

Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts freelance journalist who specializes in environment, science and health. She has written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Audubon, Discover, Slate and many other publications.

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