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Ag industry needs to open up, says expert

Famed researcher Temple Grandin calls for audits, cameras for cows

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jan 15, 2011 06:00 am

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Farmers should use audits and video cameras to show the public they are treating their animals right, says a noted researcher.

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, gave the annual Louis D. Hyndman Sr. lecture at the University of Alberta Wednesday. About 200 academic and industry people gathered to hear her speak about the importance of animal welfare to modern farmers.

Grandin is renowned amongst farmers not just for her diagnosis of autism, but for her work designing humane animal handling systems, specifically the centre-track restraint system used in about half of North America’s cattle plants. She has written many books on animal behaviour and was the subject of an award-winning HBO movie.

“Agriculture has got to start doing a much better job of communicating with the public,” she said in her southern twang. “People don’t know the difference dairy cattle and beef cattle and imagine all these terrible things are being done.”

Farmers need to open up their operations to show people where their food comes from. She called on industry to put online video cameras in their barns and slaughterhouses so people can see how animals live and die.

“The thing I’ve found is that people are just curious,” she said. “How does all this stuff work?”

Happy cows mean happy profits

Grandin was one of the first people to develop a comprehensive animal welfare audit for slaughterhouses, which is now used throughout North America. Those audits found plenty of problems a decade ago, she said: stressed animals, broken equipment and other abuses.

And stressed, abused animals put your business at risk, according to Donald Broom, one of the world’s top researchers in animal welfare. Just as dead dolphins once caused tuna sales to plummet, sights of sheep with heat stroke during transit can lead to devastating boycotts.

“We need to understand what’s important to them,” he said of animals. “If we can provide for their needs, their welfare will be better and the public will be more likely to accept the product.”

Most improvements in animal welfare improve productivity, Broom said. Researchers have found that pigs are more likely to fight with each other when shipped with pigs they don’t know, for example. Keep pigs with their pen-mates and they have fewer injuries and better meat.

Grandin’s studies found that cows were often spooked by sensory impressions only apparent at their eye-level — patches of light or shadow, for example, or people on the other side of a fence. Simple solutions, like cardboard screens and repositioning lamps, made the cows stay calm.

Open the barn

Animal care has greatly improved over the last 20 years, Grandin said. “Before we started the audits, a lot of plants had broken stunning equipment,” she noted, which meant about 70 per cent of them failed to kill animals on the first try, causing unnecessary stress. Now, plants know to do regular maintenance on their gear — no plant failed the stunner test last year.

The key is regular auditing, she said. “You have to prevent bad from becoming normal.” Big companies like Cargill are now using video monitoring on their plants for more effective audits.

Industry has to let people see these improvements, she said. Video cameras can give thousands of people looks inside operations they otherwise couldn’t see for practical reasons. JS West in California has put online chicken-cams in their hatcheries, she noted, which have proved very popular.

Alberta pig farmers know the importance of caring for their animals, said Darcy Fitzgerald of Alberta Pork. “If an animal’s overstressed, the quality is not there.” His group is developing a self-audit to help farmers track how they care for their pigs.

Fitzgerald said he wasn’t sure how popular in-plant cameras would be in Alberta. “I don’t think the general public would want to see animals killed.” The UK has had some success with barn-cams, he noted, but his group wasn’t promoting them.


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