Sunday, May 29, 2016

What I learned from Temple Grandin

I'm just a dairy farmer with a blog. Temple Grandin is a world-famous animal behavior expert and autism spokesperson.

Three weeks ago, I found myself talking with Temple over the phone about dairy cow wellbeing. And, last week, I took her to see a dairy farm owned by a friend of mine in eastern Wisconsin.

In the photo above, I look a little awed – and that's how I felt. I've known who Temple Grandin is for decades. Temple had no idea who I was before I wrote a blog post about the comments she made regarding dairy farmers in The Washington Post's Wonkblog. The last thing I expected was for Temple to email me about the post.

I don't usually write about current issues – or even comment on them in social media. I prefer to share stories about what's happening on my farm. But this time, I couldn't ignore the inaccuracies that were passed off as truths in The Washington Post piece.

A quote I heard recently kept nagging me:

"What you cherish, you defend."  – Major General Philip G. Killey

I cherish working with dairy cows every day. And, to be honest, I felt a little defensive when I wrote that first post. It's hard not to be upset when your life's work is mispresented.

In the Wonkblog article, the author used Temple's quotes to support his claim that dairy farmers in the United States are milking cows for all they are worth.

Temple was quoted as saying that most of the dairy farms in the United States are wrecking their cows.

I was shocked by that statement. So was every other dairy farmer I know. None of us are in the business of wrecking cows. We devote endless hours to providing the best life possible for our cows.

It turned out, though, that the writer from The Washington Post didn't publish all of Temple's comments. Temple had shared both praise for dairy farmers and concerns about dairy farming, but only the concerns were published. Temple clarified her position on dairy farms in an official statement.

In her email to me, Temple explained what happened. A couple days later we talked over the phone. When I asked Temple about The Washington Post story, it was clear that Temple was just as upset about what was published as I was.

But I still felt like Temple wasn't seeing the whole picture when it came to dairy cows. Most of Temple's work is with other food animal species, so she doesn't visit dairy farms as often as she visits beef, hog, and poultry farms. Temple and I talked about current dairy farming practices and I invited her to visit a dairy farm the next time she was in the area. Temple said she was coming to Wisconsin to speak about autism in a couple weeks. My friend Katie at Vir-Clar Farm agreed to give Temple a tour of her dairy.

Katie's farm is a lot different than my farm. We milk, feed, and house our cows differently, but the outcome is the same: comfortable, healthy cows.

I picked Temple up from her hotel early that morning and we drove out to Katie's farm. The tour of the farm was wonderful. So was the discussion about dairy farming.

Katie and I listening to Temple during the tour.

Through all of this, I've learned (or relearned) a few lessons:

1. It's better to reach out a hand than to put up a fist.

Temple could have ignored my blog post, or she could have dismissed my opinion. Instead, she emailed and offered to explain.

In my post, I asked questions about Temple's intentions without questioning her character.

It seems like everything we do – as parents, as eaters, as farmers – is criticized by one group or another. Sadly, it has become normal to attack people's character simply because their statements don't align with ours or they live their lives differently than we do.

Social media has facilitated this development: People hurl words at each other that they would never say face-to-face. Consequently, it seems like constructive conversations don't exist anymore; they've been replaced with launching grenades from behind bunkers.

By keeping an open mind, Temple and I were both able to learn something from each other.

2. It's OK to agree to disagree.

Temple told me a story about protesters outside one of her talks. She said the racket was so loud she finally walked outside and addressed the protesters.

"Can we just agree to disagree?" she asked the group.

Temple's story was a good reminder that some of us will never agree on some topics.

On most topics, though, Temple and I agreed wholeheartedly:

    • We need to give animals a good life and a respectful death.

    • Procedural drift happens on all types of farms. We need to be constantly evaluating our practices and retraining ourselves and our employees.

    • When it comes to farms, big is not bad. "Badly managed is bad," as Temple says. As is true for every industry, there are dairy farms where there is room for improvement; a farm's performance is not a function of size, it's a function of management.

    • Our goal is continual improvement in animal care. "No farm is perfect," Temple said. But that doesn't mean we aren't striving for perfection.

There was one topic on which Temple and I disagreed:

Temple has been saying for awhile that we humans are pushing animals – not just dairy cows, but a whole list of species that includes both food animals and companion animals – beyond what is biologically possible. I don't know enough about the other species Temple mentioned, but I do know dairy cows.

A couple decades ago, there was a period of time in which dairy farmers tried to get dairy cows to produce more milk by feeding more grain and genetically selecting for higher milk production. Those days have long since passed. We recognized the error in this approach and took a different approach. Now we feed dairy cows a diet of mostly forages – a diet that's carefully balanced for fiber sources, amino acids, and micronutrients, among other things. We now use genetic selection to breed cows that are productive, but also healthy and strong. We are not asking our cows to do more than they are capable of.

3. Science matters.

Temple is an animal scientist. She is a researcher and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She's been studying animal behavior and wellbeing for longer than I've been alive. Understandably, she has a great appreciation for science and research.

When Temple and I first talked about improvements to dairy cow wellbeing, Temple said, "It's hard to measure improvement if we're not measuring."

At the end of the farm tour in Wisconsin, Nigel Cook, an animal scientist from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, showed Temple his latest research, which measured dairy cow wellbeing. Nigel's research showed that dairy cows can be both very productive and very healthy. Temple was impressed by the research.

"This really shows that improvements are being made," Temple said after reading Nigel's report.

Unfortunately, many Americans don't seem to care about science anymore. But science is important. Improvement – in any area of our lives – is accelerated by scientific research.

4. It's best to see for yourself.

Temple is a visual learner. She learns by seeing and experiencing things firsthand, which is why she is so good at understanding how animals experience situations.

When we were at the farm, Temple pointed out everything she saw – from how healthy the cows looked to how calm the cows were, even when the gates lifted in the parlor.

Dairy cows chewing their cud in the milking parlor at Vir-Clar Farm.

We live in a world with unprecedented access to information. Some of that information is accurate and some of it is inaccurate. And the information changes constantly; one day a report states one thing, the next day another report claims the opposite. It's hard to know who to trust and what to believe. It's hard to sort through all the details and see the whole picture.

If you have questions about dairy farming, I encourage you to reach out to one of the dairy farmer bloggers on this list. Dairy farmer bloggers are committed to showing others what real dairy farming looks like.

An even better way to learn about dairy farming, if you get the chance, is to visit a dairy farm. It really is the best way to see for yourself how well dairy farmers care for their cows.

After our tour last week, Temple told her audience that night:

"I saw dairy cows who have a wonderful life today."

One of the dairy cows at Vir-Clar Farm, resting in her stall.


  1. How lucky you are to be able to share your experiences with Temple Grandin. What an honor to show her on farm what really goes on and also to learn from her experience. I was very happy you posted comments about the original article and found a way to find the truth in what was really said. I too was disappointed when I read the original article. We found also that sometimes the media doesn't correctly quote statements. I think they editorialize not always to get their own opinion out but because they don't understand what was actually said. So it is misquoted. Thank you for helping to better educate the public on truth in farm life.

  2. What a wonderful blog post! I found it very informative and objective. Wishing you and yours all the best! - Russell Simmons (St. Paul, MN)


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