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, Grandin 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.