Tell your story but keep it real: Grandin

Updated, June 1, 2012 — Livestock producers should harness the power of YouTube to counter the influence of animal rights activists in the consumer market, but they’ll want to ditch the spin and keep it real.

That was the advice of renowned U.S. animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, delivered to a packed house at a presentation here last week.

"When YouTube first started, about two or three years ago, when you typed in ‘cattle feedlot’ you just got all kinds of horrible pictures and stuff," the straight-shooting professor of animal science told her audience of over 700.

"Now when I type that in I’m getting owners scooping up grain and things like that. People are interested in looking at normal stuff."

Grandin, famed for designing low-stress livestock-handling systems, urged pork producers to post video clips of "ordinary things" such as feeding sows or taking care of piglets or to explain practices such as artificial insemination and why they are used.

"Explain it in a matter-of-fact way," she said. "But it does need to be explained. Don’t put stuff up and not explain it.

"Explain it like it’s a training video. There’s a tendency to get into too much P.R. fluff talk. Say that ‘I’m a pork producer in Manitoba and I’m proud of what I do.’ Then give them a tour of the farm like you might do for wedding guests or your relatives from Toronto."

Grandin, who is scheduled to speak in Mississauga on June 7 at a benefit for the Farm and Food Care Foundation, doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of animal production and has, for example, posted videos detailing the proper stunning of animals prior to slaughter.

All about image

If those involved in livestock production want to improve their image they not only need to defend what they do but change their practices when better or more humane methods become available, she said.

Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, cited carbon dioxide gas stunning boxes as an example.

Gas chambers are better than having slaughter plant workers capture and shackle thousands of distressed, flapping birds each day — a practice that causes a high percentage of broken wings, she said.

"Birds don’t like to be hung upside down," she said. "If you go to a chamber system, you get rid of the stressful situation. People are not going to torture dead chickens."

Combined with incentive pay, incidence of broken wings has been lowered from five to six per cent — formerly considered normal — to less than one per cent. The gas chambers also make workers’ lives easier.

Gas chambers have also been adopted by hog operations to make the task of disposing of surplus or runt piglets easier for barn workers, especially the new recruits.

"Good stockpeople don’t want to smash a baby pig’s head on the concrete," she said.

Abundant neuroscience literature proves that animals can feel fear, pain, and separation distress, she noted. But what’s good for animals also benefits the bottom line, she argued, because reducing animal stress leads to better production efficiency, health and worker safety.

Workers are an often overlooked aspect, she added. Understaffing, poor working conditions, and fatigue can lead to ugly incidents of abuse that might show up on YouTube for the world to see.

"Some people just should not be handling livestock," said Grandin. "They like to hurt them, they can’t stop screaming, and can’t get the electric prod out of their hands."

Reality check

On the other hand, there’s no point in shying away from the reality of the livestock business, she said.

"I am not going to call it a ‘harvest facility’ or a ‘harvest floor’ — it’s a slaughterhouse," she said.

But it’s not the slaughterhouse of yesterday, she added. Grandin toured the Maple Leaf Foods slaughter plant at Brandon prior to the event and said it’s a good example of how far the industry has advanced since she started in the 1980s, when practices were "terrible."

With an HBO movie recently made about her life, Grandin has had the opportunity to mix with society’s elites and opinion leaders. Many of them are simple unaware of the nuts-and-bolts of the livestock industry.

"They ask me, ‘What exactly is a feedlot? Is it really bad to feed them grain? Do they almost die?’" she said. "I explained that cattle come running when you feed them grain. It’s a diet of cake and cookies — they love it. But we send them to the slaughterhouse before they get sick."

She was critical of the industry’s reaction to the recent "pink slime" debacle, which exploded after it was revealed that finely textured meat byproducts were being added to hamburger in the U.S. Consumers went "berserk" and processors went bankrupt virtually overnight.

"I tell people that if we don’t use this product, we’re throwing away 15 to 30 pounds of food per steer. That’s a lot of cattle going in the garbage. Wasting food is a sin."

Instead of wasting time with denials, Grandin said the damage could have been alleviated by immediately posting YouTube videos showing that the product is not made from floor sweepings.

"I even thought of an advertising slogan: ‘Pink slime, it’s sustainable and green. It’s so gross it’s awesome,’" she said to laughter from the audience.

— Daniel Winters is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator at Oak Lake, Man. A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2012 issue.

CORRECTION: The print version of this article in the May 31 Co-operator incorrectly stated that people attending Dr. Grandin’s presentation paid $75 per ticket to hear her speak. Although the event was advertised as costing $75 per ticket, its sponsors in fact covered the cost of admission for the 700 people in attendance. We regret the error.

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