In Conversation with Dr. Temple Grandin: Why Big Is Fragile and Cows Need Manners

Dr. Temple Grandin on ranch

Dr. Temple Grandin is world-renowned expert in livestock handling and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She’s designed meat plants all over the world, and her published writings on the principles of grazing animal behavior in both scientific journals and magazines have helped many ranchers and farmers to improve their animal welfare practices. Two of her books, Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human, were on the New York Times best seller list. Her life story was made into a 2010 HBO movie titled Temple Grandin, which starred Claire Daines and won seven Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. In addition to her work with animals, Grandin is one of the first individuals on the autism spectrum to document the insights she gained from her personal experience of autism and is an outspoken proponent of autism rights.

Recently, she spent some time talking with Panorama’s rancher network about animal care and the greater state of the world. Some highlights:

COVID has shown us that Big, as in Big Agriculture, Big Technology, Big Oil, and Big Food, creates a fragile system. When the full force of the pandemic became obvious last year, grocery store shelves emptied of everything from toilet paper to meat as supply chains were disrupted. Meat packing plants across the country saw their output drop as employees became infected by the hundreds. Millions of hogs had to be euthanized because there was nowhere for them to go, yet grocery store meat cases were almost empty as consumers began panic-buying. To this day, it takes longer to get everything from food to furniture delivered because the supply chains still haven’t recovered.

It’s not that big is necessarily bad (“badly managed is bad,” she says). Big packing plants are more efficient and less costly to run than small plants, but that system is easy to break. Instead, Grandin envisions a network of distributed local supply chains. They’re more expensive to run, but less prone to disruption and more resilient after the ill effects of natural disasters, pandemics, or cyberattacks. She’s seeing more small and mid-size plants coming online as people heed the wake-up call. She stressed that the two systems aren’t mutually exclusive. In her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, a huge Budweiser plant produces millions of cases of beer every year, yet Fort Collins has been called the Napa Valley of craft brewing because of its dozens of microbreweries. In the same way, Grandin says organic meat doesn’t compete with commodity meat. They’re two separate and distinct niches.

Family ranchers are maintaining the land with well-managed rotational grazing and cover-cropping, along with new ideas like grazing sheep beneath solar panels and using grazing as a tool for fire suppression. She encourages ranchers to tell their stories to the public and get to know their customers. “Farm tours are priceless,” she says.

Changes to improve an operation don’t have to be major undertakings. When she worked with McDonalds to create a more humane animal processing system in their supply chain, it was the small changes that made the difference: things like lighting, non-slip floors and teaching good animal handling techniques. The same is true at the ranch level. “It’s the simple things in regenerative ag, not all the BS,” she says.

People who work with animals are underpaid and overworked. “Stockmanship doesn’t get enough credit,” she says. One aspect of animal handling is learning to recognize and measure simple behaviors like vocalizations, the key to a stress-free relationship between rancher and animals. (“Measuring prevents the bad from becoming normal,” she adds.) 

Don’t reward bad behavior like rudeness and pushiness from individual animals in the herd. “Cows have to have manners,” she says. Teaching them to follow the truck is more effective than trying to herd them to a place from behind because “cattle always want to go back to where they came from.” This is especially important in a crisis where they need to be quickly moved out of danger without panicking. She offers more detail on animal handling in her Guide to Working with Farm Animals.

Recognize that people think differently. Grandin is a visual thinker, seeing thoughts in pictures rather than words. She struggled in school because the system is created for people who think in words, but she says visual thinking is common sense thinking. “We need more visual thinkers to fix things because they can see the problems. Our ADD people—we need them to be mechanics and machinists.”