Livestock handling expert Temple Grandin (right) chats with Amy Marcoot in a milking parlor on the Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, Ill. Grandin visited the farm as part of a dairy tour. She spoke that evening about autism at a local community college.
Livestock handling expert Temple Grandin (right) chats with Amy Marcoot in a milking parlor on the Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, Ill. Grandin visited the farm as part of a dairy tour. She spoke that evening about autism at a local community college.

GREENVILLE, Ill. — Cattle handling has improved greatly over the past few decades, thanks in large part to Temple Grandin. But she still sees room for improvement.

Grandin, known worldwide for her innovative livestock structures, as well as for her lifelong experience with autism, spoke on a number of topics during a dairy tour here.

“Cow handling has gotten a whole lot better. But there is still 10 percent that don’t know how to handle a cow,” she said. “I was at a ranch and one teenage boy with a music player in his ears was ripping ear tags out of cattle without cutting them first. That’s the kind of stuff that management has to make sure doesn’t happen.”

The Boston native became a global expert in cattle handling while struggling all her life with autism, a neurological disorder characterized by stilted psychological development, erratic behavior and diminished social skills

She didn’t speak until age 4. Grandin became interested in livestock as a teenager while staying at an aunt’s ranch.

She ultimately earned a Ph.D. and developed a number of cattle handling methods that are both more humane and more efficient than those that had been in use for decades.

Her fame rose after her life story was depicted in the HBO movie, Temple Grandin , starring actress Clare Danes. The critically acclaimed movie won a number of Emmy awards.

Grandin sees growing acceptance of her structures and an increasing willingness to maintain systems such as the curving alleyway designed to calm steers headed to slaughter. Some of that is credited to the ubiquitous nature of modern communications.

“I’ve been working in cattle handling for almost 40 years,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that selling the equipment was easy. The thing that was hard was getting people to operate it right. Some of the worst animal abuse I ever saw happened with stuff I designed. You’ve got to have the management to go along with the thing. It’s improved a lot.

“I went out to feedlots 10 or 20 years ago, get the handling good, come back a week later and the handling is awful. Now the consultants are going out and the handling is tending to stay good. I think one of the reasons is the cellphone camera. You can’t keep them out anymore.”

Grandin has posted several videos demonstrating proper animal handling. She encourages others to do the same, but cautions that they must first imagine how it looks to those outside agriculture.

“We’ve got to look at everything we do and ask how it’s going to fly in New York City, because it’s sold to people in New York City,” she said. “I’ve been suggesting to people to put things on YouTube, to show what you do. But someone put up a video of working cattle on a ranch with 10 zillion hotshots. Why did they do that? They didn’t even know that it was bad.”

Grandin decried the lack of knowledge of animal agriculture by those not involved in the industry.

“We have a public today that doesn’t know anything,” she said. “They think big is bad. They’re living in their silo. Everyone’s living in their silo. One thing I’ve always done in my career is try to get outside of the silo.”

While great strides have been made in cattle handling, Grandin still sees room for improvement. Among methods she would like to see changed are some basic actions that can be easily accomplished.

“Some of the things I’ve been complaining about forever is moving smaller groups up in the crowd pen, get the hotshots out of your hand and stop screaming at them,” she said. “Those are the first things you have to do. Once the cattle get excited, it takes 30 minutes for them to calm back down.”

She also expressed concern about some long-term treatments that are changing the shapes, sizes and behavior of animals.

“This cutting tails off dairy cows — we need to stop that,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t get into what I call bad becoming normal. We see a cow that walks stiffly. That’s not normal.

“In the future, I see one of the biggest animal welfare issues a thing called biological system overload. We’re pushing that Holstein to the point now where maybe their metabolism has been altered, and they’re getting so big. They don’t fit into the trucks anymore. We’re looking at what’s optimal production. There’s always a price. There’s always a tradeoff.”