When is an expert no longer an expert?

Temple Grandin is famous for more than just being an animal welfare expert. She is the face for autism awareness and her name has become a brand for “humane” slaughter facilities. As an industry, animal agriculture has supported and promoted her work and has even gone so far as to enlist her celebrity status in the battle to satisfy consumers that we raising their food ethically and responsibly. (I’m still puzzled why consumers are so concerned, as farmers used to be one of the most trusted professions)  So, now that this quirky, seemingly introverted personality is in the media spotlight, I have to wonder – has she gone from being a scientist to just another celebrity with a cause?

In a recent  Washington Post article Dr Grandin makes a claim that I would have expected from someone like Food Babe (@thefoodbabe) or Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow) but from an actual animal scientist? Say it isn’t so! In this article about the dairy industry, Grandin’s attention grabbing quote is this: “What they’ve done is basically the equivalent of taking a car, putting it in neutral, and then dropping a brick on the accelerator until it blows up,” says Grandin. “These cows are constantly in the red zone.” While not based on a shred of science, this bold statement certainly paints a vivid picture of an irresponsible, ruthless, money grubbing industrialists who care, not a bit, for the welfare of animals. Unfortunately, a picture the public is all too ready to accept.

Dr Grandin is further quoted “I call them the bad dairies. They make up most of the farms in the United States, and their cows are so wrecked by the time they stop milking they can barely be used for beef.” She defines “bad dairies” as the ones that use selective breeding to increase cow size and milk production, at the expense of cow health.

Now as a scientist, surely she didn’t just grab this off the first page of a Google search, right?  I’m just a simple country boy, but I have worked with some pretty successful dairy farmers both here in Canada, where the farms tend to be smaller, as well as in the United States of Walmart, where farms can be anywhere from 40 cows anywhere to “mega dairies” with thousands of cows. In my experience (as a simple country boy) the size of the farm is not an indication of the quality of care, and the farms with the very highest production are the ones where the cows are healthiest and have the least stress possible. I scratch my head at her statements because I have also been on substandard dairies, where the animals really are on the edge of disaster (to use Dr Grandin’s analogy) and those farms never, ever have high milk production.

So, given my simple observations of real dairy farms all over North America, I start to wonder about Dr Grandin’s motives here. The author of this article cites academic papers from as far back as 1999 and, as anyone involved in the dairy industry knows, 20 years are a lot of years of improvement. Let’s consider for a minute Dr Grandin’s claims that farmers have bred cows to be “disposable” with no consideration to health and longevity. What are the financial impacts to a farm?  We know that the cost to raise a dairy heifer (that’s a female before she has her first calf, for the city folks telling us how to farm) is in the range of $2,500 before she ever generates any income (shhh, don’t tell people that farmers have to make money) so, even a corporate tycoon can see that farmers benefit from breeding cows that stay in the herd longer, so that might factor into a farmers selection of genetic traits.

Here’s where Dr Grandin and I agree: Breeding for production and size on their own, without considering health and longevity would be irresponsible, but you can’t stop there. If a cow has a high genetic index for milk production, it’s almost always because that cow has good feet, legs, udder and general conformity which LEADS to high feed intake, good mobility and good udder health which LEADS to high milk production.  Maybe it’s not choosing one or the other…..

In the article, while specifically trying to make the point that high production is counter intuitive to longevity, GigiGrandin highlights the world record Holstein for milk production (75,000 lbs/lactation), a cow named Gigi from the original dairy state, Wisconsin– she is quoted- “You can push cows to the point where they start to fall apart, and that’s what we’re doing.” She must mean Gigi, right? With that amount of milk, there must be nothing left of poor Gigi? Is Gigi going to get a third lactation?????  Well if the Washington Post or Dr Grandin did their research they would have discovered that Gigi is 9 years old! Hmm, high milk production and longevity? Makes you wonder how Gigi has been setting milk records for 7 years if her body is in “biological system overload.” As Dr Grandin suggests.

Now, in my simple, country boy opinion, perhaps Gigi and cows like her, give a lot of milk because they have great conformation, comfortable housing, good nutrition, regular health care, and the farmers’ careful attention. Perhaps when Dr Grandin used the term “impossibly productive” she didn’t do her research and was just trying for a sound bite or a headline? Has Temple Grandin crossed over from being an ally to the animal agriculture industry, or has she become more celebrity, less expert?

Here is the original post written about this issue written by Sadie Frericks which appeared in Hoards Dairyman. Credit to Sadie for bringing this issue to light.



6 thoughts on “When is an expert no longer an expert?

  1. Mr. Schumm,

    I read things like this often and have never responded to one until today. To give you some background I went to undergrad where I got my Bachelor’s in Animal Science and worked about 15 years in the veterinary industry prior to attending Veterinary School. I am currently in my second year of school and while I am not an expert at all I just thought I would add a thought. I would like to preface it by saying I am writing with respect and not out of condemnation or for the sake of argument. I am writing out of my education and the best understanding that I have of the anatomy and physiology of animals and biology. Furthermore, just because I have the experience I do, DOES NOT make me an expert.

    I think what Dr. Grandin is trying to say from the snip of the article that you quoted may have been misinterpreted. I will give you my view of what I think she is trying to say and in the end you have the freedom to feel however you like. As a person who has been around dairies a long time, evidently, you are well aware that a cows gestation is 283 days. This of course leaves 82 days left in a full year, or 2.75 months. That is 2 months to get her back to breeding body condition score and .75 months with a bull to get her re-bred so production doesn’t can roll as much as possible. As I’m sure you know breeding standards are different everywhere you go, but one thing remains the same. She ain’t pregnant, she ain’t having a calf, and she doesn’t have a calf she ain’t milking. Milk = Money, in order to make a profit and pay bills, cows HAVE to milk. The problem is constant breeding over and over and over. NOW, I am aware that there is not a way around this, and I was not able to read Dr. Grandin’s whole article, so I do not know what she is presenting as a way to fix this, but I would have to believe that it is in the best interest of the cow.

    To illustrate my point I will use a human model just for an example. A woman gets pregnant and as wonderful as pregnancy and birth are it isn’t a cake walk. Many women have morning sickness, become diabetics due to the pregnancy, can develop back problems, experience dystocias (just like cattle), give up a ton of nutrients to support this new life + their own, and some women even die due to complications. But for the example let’s just say a woman has her baby and her first pregnancy was uneventful and she and the baby are healthy, but to feed that baby she has to eat enough food to care for her own nutrients to get her body back to a non-gestation state and she has to have EXTRA nutrients to make milk to feed the baby. Well, three months later this woman gets pregnant again and this time she has morning sickness very badly and actually loses weight. Baby is born healthy but this time she has to have MORE nutrition to gain back the weight she lost + feed the baby + get her body to non-gestation balance. However, yet again three months later she gets pregnant and this time she has a milder case of morning sickness but she also develops gestational diabetes and the cycle continues on for seven years. Which I believe tends to be about the top of milking age for cattle from what I know. Each time she got pregnant she had a different complication. As we get older our bodies get worse at repairing themselves, bottom line. So, baby number 2 was an easy fix after baby 7 not so much. She couldn’t eat enough to get the nutrients she needed to fully get to a non-gestational state so what does the body do? It starts pulling from it’s stores and uses up all the fat it can to get the extra energy it can, if that isn’t enough it goes to muscle and she starts muscle wasting. Now, ideally this would never happen in a human, I only used a human because of the similar gestation period; however, it is the same principle in the cow. Every pregnancy has complications and takes TONS of energy. As the body gets older, it is harder to make that energy and find places to get it from. So, you HOPE you can get the cow back into positive nutrition before she is re-bred, but if she isn’t well she starts the pregnancy out in a deficiency. This makes post-calving even harder. What I believe Dr. Grandin is trying to say is as simple as this, Cows NEVER get a break they never get a rest it’s constant. She may be pregnant or lactating either way shes using TONS of energy so she’s constantly looking for it. As I said, I do not know what Dr. Grandin proposes as a solution to this or if she even does. However, what I think she means by 90% of dairies are “BAD DAIRIES” is simply there are ways to make this better but it is hard to make change in a whole country. Producers want money, and they should! I think she just means that some production changes could benefit the cattle and most farms won’t implement due to higher costs of production, and let’s face it “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As many producers see the system it isn’t broke, and it may NOT be… BUT EVERYTHING can ALWAYS be better, for the producer, the cow, and the consumer!

    I hope that this explanation is taken as an outside opinion and doesn’t insult you. I am an avid pro-production person! I love beef and I love milk. I think the whole point is there probably are better ways to do things and most producers probably aren’t ready to increase their production costs to change things. I hope this offered you some different perspective. I also would encourage you to contact Mrs. Grandin. She is on staff at Colorado State University and has always been about the betterment of livestock husbandry, if you want to understand more she obviously could give you more of her perspective.

    Best Regards.


  2. “Dear Roberto:

    I read the article about the dairy industry where I was quoted. He concentrated on my negative statements and left out my positive statements, about particular dairies who were doing an excellent job. During the interview I mad it clear that a certain segment of the dairy industry had problems, but I emphasized that there is another segment that is excellent. The article would have been more objective if it had included some of my positive quotes. ” This is the same response that I sent to the Washington Post author who wrote the article.


    Temple Grandin


    1. Thank you Dr Grandin for clarifying that high production and longevity can go together on a well managed dairy. It is unfortunate that, due to the Washington Post article, many consumers believe that your condemnation of the dairy industry is all encompassing. Perhaps we can work together to set the record straight. I would be happy to talk with you directly. With all respect, Wendell Schumm


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