Opinion: Simple changes yield rich rewards with livestock

Earlier this month, along with more than 1,000 others, I was privileged to listen to Temple Grandin speak about cattle handling via an AHDB webinar.

I first encountered Dr Grandin over 10 years ago when I worked in publishing and heard her present at an autism conference.

I was amazed by her story of overcoming a childhood diagnosis of “brain damage” and calls for her to be placed in an institution, to go on to become a doctor of veterinary science, author of numerous scientific papers on animal behaviour, and a world-renowned expert on humane treatment of livestock.

See also: How to light dairy parlours for cows, staff and quality

About the author

liz hainesLiz Haines
Columnist, Farmers Weekly

Liz Haines is in a joint venture on a dairy farm in Staffordshire, converting the all-year-round calving herd to a split block-calving grazing system.

Read more articles by Liz Haines

To hear her speak again, albeit online, now that her work has a direct relevance to my own business, was an amazing opportunity.

The pandemic has offered us some learning experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise have had, through the vast number of webinars and podcasts the AHDB and others have put on to compensate for the loss of physical events.

Dr Grandin was exactly as I remembered her – straight-talking, down to earth and practical. She has a rare ability to see the world from an animal perspective, rather than try to apply a human perspective to animal behaviour.

This is the mistake of many animal welfare activists, as evidenced by the recent online pictures of some “rescued” battery hens living in someone’s front room.

Although her aim is always to improve welfare for animals during their lifetime, she never loses sight of the fact that farming is a food-production business. Much of her work involves incredibly simple and low-cost changes to farm infrastructure – better lighting, level floors, removing dogs from cattle-handling areas.

She also reminded us that cows, like all other domestic animals, are motivated by food, and this can be used to train them to certain routine events, such as TB testing.

We reward our dogs with treats, so why not feed the cows a treat when they exit the crush after TB testing, to create a positive association? If animals are given time to get used to unfamiliar things (such as the buzzing clippers), it is likely they will adapt.

If improving cattle handling is really this simple, why aren’t we all doing it? There may be concerns around time, practicalities and costs, or perhaps it seems too indulgent.

However, the rewards for making simple changes could be huge. Cattle handling can be physically dangerous, but the mental health effects of stress from working in a challenging environment with unco-operative animals, or the fallout from injury caused by these circumstances, cannot be underestimated.

Working successfully with calm and content animals, on the other hand, is one of the greatest pleasures of farming.

If tasks can be carried out more smoothly (“slow is fast” is one of Dr Grandin’s quotes), with fewer accidents and near misses, there are huge benefits, from time and cost savings to better productivity, and most importantly, happy people and animals.

With ever-increasing scrutiny from the public and activists, and regulation from Defra, there has never been a better time to improve animal handling on farms.

I would encourage everyone who farms livestock to watch the webinar on YouTube, and to share it with staff and family members. Your animals and your team will thank you.

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