Animal welfare on the agenda

Animal welfare is on the agenda at most dairy and meat conferences these days. Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about how animals are treated, and milk producers are also aware that “animals produce more and better meat and higher-quality food products if they’re treated well”, as Temple Grandin, internationally renowned animal welfare expert, said in a talk on good animal management at a workshop at Louisiana State University LSU, on Jan. 26.

Dr Grandin is a popular speaker at dairy and meat conferences. She has studied livestock animal behavior over the past 35 years, and her concern for the welfare of animals, even as they are sent to slaughter, has changed the way livestock facilities are designed and managed. She serves as a consultant for many major food corporations including McDonald’s and Swift, and her livestock facility designs are used around the world.

She attributes her success partly to her autistic condition. Her life story was made into an Emmy Award-winning movie that aired on HBO in 2010, and in addition to being a spokeswoman for the humane treatment of animals, she uses her celebrity to call for better understanding of autism.

“I’m a very visual person,” said Grandin, who is an animal science professor at Colorado State University. “I see details. And that’s what animals see, details. They think in pictures.”

The No. 1 rule for the animal handler is to remain calm and not yell at animals or physically abuse them in any way. With strategic use of lights and barriers, Grandin designs facilities that get rid of distractions for animals and abrupt changes in lighting that cause them to get nervous.

She has single-handedly redesigned livestock handling equipment from the perspective of how cattle view and react to their surroundings. She has on occasion put herself physically in their place – down in the chutes, for example – to determine what could be done to make the animals less fearful.

In her talk at LSU Grandin also encouraged the audience to be more communicative about agriculture including the posting of more videos on YouTube about animal handling practices.

“In ag we tend to stay in a hole and don’t communicate. But the public is curious,” she said.

She says the numbers show that people are more likely to view videos of good practices rather than the shameful ones that should be banned.

At the I-29 Dairy Conference in South Dakota on Feb 9th Dr. Grandin gave a presentation focused on the importance of understanding how fear impacts animal behavior and significantly reduces productivity in any setting, including a dairy.

"Fear circuits in animal’s brains have been mapped. Animals experience fear," Dr. Grandin said. "Scientists have learned that cortisol levels are elevated in animals when they experience fear or are handled roughly. When they’re able to do something voluntarily, cortisol levels are lower.

"Female animals also respond differently than males. They tend to get more excited than males. Electric prods really increase stress levels, in all animals. A lot of the stress responses go across species. Research has shown that stress makes females less likely to conceive and causes open mouthed breathing to increase. Fear is a very strong stressor so you want to avoid that in your dairy animals."

Ear radar is often a first sign of fear. Tail swishing, sweating, and quivering can all be indications that an animal is experiencing a fear response.

At the 2011 Meat Conference in Texas Dr. Grandin called for more accountability among dairy farmers.

“All dairies need to start auditing the following things in animal welfare: Percentage of lame cows? We need to get it to 5 percent,” down from 30 percent in some of the worst cases, she said.

“Body condition: How many very skinny cows have you got? How many dirty cows? How many have swollen legs?” She said swollen legs can come from poorly designed or maintained stalls.

Temple Grandin helped develop the National Dairy FARM program, (Farmers Assuring Responsible ManagementTM ). The program "Provides consistency and uniformity to best practices in animal care and quality assurance in the dairy industry".

Download their manual National Dairy FARM Animal Care Manual


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Monica Wadsworth

Monica Wadsworth
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