CYGNET, Ohio — Moving cattle can be quite the chore. They’re big, often bull-headed and they can put up a lot of resistance if they choose.
As a handler, it can be easy to lose your temper and begin yelling at the animals or poking them with a prod.
But according to world-renowned animal handling expert Temple Grandin, many of the things that make moving livestock difficult can easily be overcome.
“The first thing you’ve got to do when handling livestock is just calm down — no yelling and screaming,” Grandin said at a livestock event held Thursday evening in Cygnet, Ohio.
She advised a group of producers — many who were cattlemen — to get down on their hands and knees and see what it’s like to be a cow or a steer. If there are visible distractions like loose chains, dark entrances to other barns or loose material that blows in the wind, those same things can prevent the animal from behaving as its handlers would like.
When handlers get mad, the animals — especially cattle — sense the same response and become nervous, she said.
“Get down in the chutes and see what they’re seeing,” she said.
Grandin can arguably see as well or better than most people. As a high-functioning autistic woman, she is a visual thinker and can use that skill in impressive ways. And she understands some of the same sensory issues animals may experience when entering new or unfamiliar environments.
She spoke at the Nichols Farm on the corner of Cygnet Road and Washington Street. The event preceded a speaking engagement on June 10, when she was the keynote speaker for the Autism Summit of Northwest Ohio, at Bowling Green State University.
Standing outside an equipment shed, Grandin talked about the wide “spectrum” that exists with autism. Some children and adults are severely affected and may have little to no speech, while others are fluent speakers and have many talents and gifts. Autism affects people differently, she said, and skills and abilities differ by person.
She holds a doctorate degree and teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University. Along with a wide array of big-name media appearances, she is a New York Times best selling author and was most recently recognized through an Emmy-winning HBO documentary of her life, Temple Grandin, staring Claire Danes.
The popularity has given Grandin more reason to travel to big cities, where she meets fans and talks about autism and the work she does to help the livestock industry. It also connects her with people who sometimes do not understand animal agriculture.
“You have people in the cities who are totally removed from all things practical,” she said.
She encouraged farmers to use the Internet to share what they do and media tools like YouTube to post video of their farm. In her words, people need to “cross the divide” that exists between consumers and farmers.
Part of it has to do with what students are taught. She spoke critically of efforts to strip school curriculum of hands-on classes like shop and home economics, and tours to different places. Those are the kinds of things visual learners need, she said, and are the types of classes that teach students to problem solve and fix things.
Grandin said the cattle and livestock industries have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, but she still sees room for improvement with things like over-crowding and space allowances — especially when too many animals are put into a crowd pen. She also supports giving chickens more space to perch and do other natural behaviors.
Producers and slaughter plants need a continuous reminder of why certain systems work better than others, because “you can slowly drift back” and “not realize it,” she said.
She criticized efforts in some states to prevent undercover investigations on farms. According to Grandin, when a farm is “bashed” it should open its doors. To close them sends the wrong message to consumers, she said.
“That’s like telling the public have something to hide,” she said. “That’s the dumbest thing they (producers) possibly could have done. When you get bashed, you need to be opening the door, not shutting it.”
Grandin suggests barns be fitted with live cameras that stream their content to the Internet. It’s inexpensive and manageable, she said.
“We can put YouTube up for free,” she said. “We just to have to ask a 10-year-old how to do it.”
Grandin spent several hours at the farm answering farmers’ questions well into the night. In one question, she was asked how she felt about mega dairies.
“You can have badly managed (big) dairies and you can have badly managed small dairies,” she said.
The biggest thing is to staff the farm appropriately and manage its resources according to the operation, she explained.
She talked about the advances in small agriculture the past several years and how it can be a person’s gateway to understanding agricultural concepts and principals. Neither the big nor small farmer is necessarily any better, and both need to learn to respect the other.
“I think big ag and little ag had better stop throwing rocks at each other,” she said.
The event was sponsored by a host of agricultural organizations including Wood County Beef producers, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Great Lakes Family Farms, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio State University Extension and Pineland Farms Natural Meats.
Check back for more updates, and the results of a question and answer session farmers held with Grandin.