LOOKING back is helpful. Looking forward is essential. Temple Grandin did both during the American Wagyu Association’s 2021 Annual Convention in Fort Collins, Colorado last week.
Looking back over 50 years as an animal welfare educator, advocate and innovator, Dr Grandin shared with Wagyu breeders some of the things she learned.
“Very early in my career, I made the mistake that most engineers make, thinking engineering will replace management. I thought I could build self-managing cattle handling facilities.”
While the idea had merit, it just didn’t work. She learned that while equipment and how it works is important, it’s the people side of the equation that’s critical. “(Equipment) makes handling a lot easier. (But) equipment doesn’t replace management.”
She also learned in her work with packing plants that if the boss doesn’t buy into a new idea, all the new, innovative equipment in the world won’t change things. “I started out just doing equipment,” she told the 250 American Wagyu breeders in attendance. “Then I started training people. Then I had managers un-train them for me. Then I’d train the feedlot manager.”
However, when she trained the buyers is when things really began to improve. Ultimately, it’s the customer of a product, any product, with dollars to spend who has the leverage to initiate innovation.
Beyond that, Dr Grandin learned that when introducing new ideas and new ways of doing the same job better, simpler is key. Again, referring to her extensive work with beef processors, she told Wagyu breeders, “The thing that really changed the handling was I developed a very simple way to assess handling, with a very, very simple scoring system.”
Emphasising the people side of the cattle business, Dr Grandin told the audience that all the technology money could buy would not replace actually looking at cattle. Using cattle lameness as an example, she said not paying attention to things like leg conformation will slowly but surely sneak up and bite you from behind.
“There’s still a place to visually look at animals to make sure we’re not breeding a problem.”
She looks at genetic selection like a country’s economy and how government divvies it up. “If I put the entire economy into production, that would be milk in the dairy cow and meat in a beef animal, then I’m going to short-change my infrastructure.”
For example, she said US dairy cows now were very hard to breed, and leg conformation had gotten worse. “And you might also compromise your military, which is the immune function.”
All of those take energy for an animal to be successful. “It takes energy to grow good bones. It takes energy to support a military to fight disease off. You can’t change that. On a lot of things, you’ve got to start looking at what’s optimal,” she told Wagyu breeders.
“There’s a place for Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs are the US equivalent of Australia’s Breedplan EBSs).
“I’m not saying don’t use them. But there’s also a place for visual appraisal. I’m concerned that if you just blindly follow stuff on a spreadsheet, you could end up with some kind of problem.”
Looking ahead, Dr Grandin told Wagyu breeders that grazing animals will be part of the future. That’s because of the large amount of land that’s only suitable for animal production. And as weather patterns change and dryland becomes drier, she expects marginal cropland will be returned to pasture, creating an even larger land base for livestock production.
“The other thing I’ve found, I don’t care if it’s the cattle industry or the electronics industry, is that little guys innovate.”
That put Wagyu breeders and Wagyu cattle as a growing, increasingly popular breed in America, in a good position. “You’re in a position to innovate,” she said.
But she cautioned Wagyu breeders to be thoughtful and to adopt new ideas and technologies slowly. “The other thing is, let’s not make mistakes. When we implement new things, we want to make sure we do it right.” And get all the advice you can, particularly from local producers who are innovators.
Dr Grandin believes that future success for beef producers will include more interaction between animals and cropland.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about cover crops. It’s super local,” she told Wagyu breeders. “What works in one place might be terrible somewhere else.” Again, she stressed the need to work into a new practice like cover crops slowly and determine what will work best on an individual’s land, and with their management style.
Of the many lessons that COVID taught, Dr Grandin said the beef business learned that ‘big is fragile’. It’s very efficient, but it can break easily.
To overcome that, she believed the US beef business needed a wider, more distributive model. “A distributive supply chain is more robust, less prone to breaking, but it will be more expensive, and it doesn’t matter what the product is.”
Smaller packing plans more robust
To that end, she told Wagyu breeders, “One of the things we need is smaller, inspected slaughterhouses.” From a purely economic standpoint, they’re less efficient and more costly to operate. But they’re more robust in the face of a Black Swan event like COVID.
As in Australia, some US Wagyu breeders had invested in small plants and many had developed their own farm-to-table marketing.
“Now, when times are good, farm-to-table supports your business. But when times are rough, then we have a resource that’s going to be really important,” she said.
“So, a high-end niche market like you’re going into, that’s something of value.” Indeed, Wagyu breeders who had developed their own vertically integrated marketing efforts saw that play out in spades during the pandemic.
Until more small US plants come online, however, beef producers in a farm-to-table marketing chain were likely to have to haul their cattle farther than they’d like.
Dr Grandin encouraged Wagyu breeders to remember basic animal handling and animal welfare practices.
“Don’t crowd too many animals into the alley or tub when loading, and don’t crowd too many animals in the truck or trailer. Handle them gently and quietly to reduce stress.”
What’s more, Dr Grandin said not only can big packing plants and smaller operations exist side by side, but they can also complement each other.
“Fort Collins is home to a large Budweiser beer plant. But it’s also home to a multitude of small craft breweries. There’s a place and a market for both and the products they produce,” she said.