Arizona Agriculture Shares the Full Conversation We Had with Temple Grandin

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: While we shared parts of our conversation with Temple Grandin in an earlier blog post, Arizona Farm Bureau now posts the entire conversation with this American Icon here.

Dr. Temple Grandin has dedicated her life to improving animal welfare and handling. One of the most successful people in the world with autism, Grandin is the leading authority on farm animal behavior. Her unique ability to visualize from the animal’s perspective led her to design livestock processing systems aimed at being more humane and efficient. Her systems for reducing animal stress in processing plants are being used throughout the country—and around the world. Grandin also developed an objective scoring system for assessing and handling cattle and pigs at meat plants. A number of major corporations now use this scorecard to help improve animal welfare.

Temple Grandin

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, also travels the country giving lectures and uses her status to bring awareness to autism. She is a prolific writer, with two books on the New York Times best-seller list, and has received scores of accolades for her work.

And, she got her start in the livestock industry right here in Arizona.

Agate Construction President and CEO Jim Uhl (See Arizona Agriculture’s conversation with him in the February 2015 issue of Arizona Agriculture) remembers the evolution of Temple Grandin’s influence on modern-day feed yards. He often says of his company’s history, “Temple helped design this place.”

And Uhl can give a clear account of how it all started saying, “Bill Buhl was one of the owners out at Arlington Cattle Company, at the time in 1970. Needing a variety of projects and features for the feed yard and knowing that Agate [formerly known as Agro-Construction] was out of the conventional construction industry, we were reluctant to start designing feed yard features that were unique to that project. I was confident to be able to build just about anything, but I wouldn’t do it without an engineer or someone with livestock handling knowledge designing it first.”

That same philosophy carried through when loading chutes, dip vats and other unique builds required construction, all during Arizona’s cattle industry building boom of the 1970s. In the meantime, Uhl had heard about a young woman taking a unique and keen interest in the cattle industry. Contacting her to support his efforts, Temple Grandin had just graduated from Arizona State University with her masters in Animal Science.  

After meeting her, Uhl told Grandin he knew what the cattle industry needed but had no idea how to design it. “For example, one of the jobs we did for Red River Feedyards in Stanfield was the cattle dip vat. The cattle superintendent for Red River was a very well-known guy and one of the best men I’d ever met with an excellent reputation in the cattle industry: Ted Gilbert. Ted knew Temple because she got to know everybody; she made it a point. So he awarded us the construction on the project because of Grandin.”

Uhl goes on to explain one of his conversations with Gilbert after they began work on the Red River project. “Gilbert told me he’d been dipping cattle all his life since he was about 14-years-old and if someone had ask him how wide the lead-up shoot had to be and the degree of angle the plunge should be he would not have been able to tell a designer. Gilbert went on to tell me how Temple had gone all around the United States and ultimately on to Australia and New Zealand and measured and scientifically documented everyone that worked. She was able to give exact, correct dimensions as a result.”

He continues. “At the time there was no book of design specification on how to build a proper dip. If you build them wrong you drown the cattle. Temple knew all this. We ultimately built six to eight cattle dip vats in Arizona -- McElhaney Cattle Company, Bogle Farms, Red River, Pioneer and it was all Temple’s designs. She’s terrific. She’s better than terrific. She is a woman with unique knowledge. Early on, Temple was shy, very young and very interested in the animal slaughter process.

“On construction jobs we’d run for 90 days, seven days a week. Temple stayed right up with us. She could keep up with any man. She and I were talking during lunch one day and she said that she’d been very concerned about the amount of stress the intense July or August Arizona heat was putting on transported cattle from a feed yard to the slaughter house. She couldn’t get the information; nobody had any information on cattle stress due to high temperatures. So she went down to one of the feed yards, hid behind the chutes and got into the truck with the cattle bringing her temperature gauges while she rode with the cattle in the truck. A very dangerous thing to do since Temple was at risk of being trampled. She rode the entire route from the feed yard to the slaughter house. By risking a ride with the cattle she was able to determine how hot it got in the trailers. Then she went into the plant when they were being slaughtered to observe the impact on the carcass determining the stress placed on the cattle. She’s a scientist; a true scientist. She could prove it because she documented it.”

In January, Grandin received American Farm Bureau’s Distinguished Service Award during its 96th Annual Meeting in San Diego. “There’s no question that Dr. Grandin’s work has transformed the livestock industry,” American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said. “Her groundbreaking systems have become popular across the country for their capacity to reduce animal fear and stress while making handling and transport easier. It would have been a big loss for animal agriculture if Dr. Grandin had focused her brilliant mind on something else.”

Grandin calls her time in Arizona her “cattle-formative years.” She also says, some of the most fun times she had were in Arizona when she was working with Jim Uhl figuring out how to make things and do things in the cattle industry. “I miss some of what we were able to do for the industry at that time,” Grandin added.

Arizona Agriculture: Let’s discuss your Arizona connection. You received your masters in Animal Science from Arizona State University and then worked here for a time. Tell us about it.

Grandin: I was in Arizona from 1970 through 1981. When I came out to Arizona, I started working on my masters at Arizona State and that’s when I really started getting involved in the cattle industry.

I started going out to a feed yard. Some of the feed yards were very nice. Some were not so nice, like the one in the movie. The only women at the feed yards were doing secretarial work in the office. I wanted to work directly with the cattle.

Also, I wrote for the livestock publication. I was writing feature articles. I started getting a reputation for writing really good articles.

I began visiting all these feed yards and I began to outline good systems. I put a lot of things together to make new systems. Then I began to design things. You begin to build up the business slowly.

The other thing I found, was getting people to buy the new design was much easier than getting people to operate it correctly [once it was built and in place]. For example, you might have a new system in place now for moving cattle that doesn’t require cattle prods to be used, but people still used them. They might like the new design and how the new design [for the feed yard] worked, but getting people to handle cattle differently was difficult.

Now, there was some really good places [feed yards] that quickly adopted new systems and quickly changed the way they handled the cattle.

Human behavior is harder to change than building a new system to manage cattle. Getting people to adopt some magic system is easy. But even today, getting people to operate equipment correctly is difficult.

Back in the 70s I thought I could fix everything with better engineering, but that was only part of the process.

Arizona Agriculture: Tell me about working in the livestock industry in the 1970s in Arizona.

Grandin: There were some really good people. Ted Gilbert at the Red River Feedyard was wonderful. He was one of the one’s I worked with on the dip vat project. There was Benedict Feedyard … They were wonderful. They recognized my abilities. There was some good places.

Arizona Agriculture: What did you learn most during that time in the industry, especially here in Arizona?

Grandin: I learned how to design cattle handling facilities in Arizona. I also learned that a lot of things take a lot of perseverance.

Arizona Agriculture: You often describe how you see things; that you’re a visual thinker. As a visual thinker, explain how others could learn to think in pictures to grasp difficult concepts better? How can this help our industry? Can this approach to learning and understanding help others that are more linear?

Grandin: When I was first working in Arizona helping develop different [cattle handling] systems, I didn’t know that most people were not visual thinkers. I thought everybody was a visual thinker. I didn’t know my thinking was different. So it seemed obvious to me to get down into the chutes to see what cattle were seeing. Other people thought that was really weird. I learned that if you got rid of the hose that was laying on the ground, or you moved the truck that was parked next to the facilities, the cattle would move more easily.

I wanted to experience what the cattle experienced. I even went into a dip vat, which was not one of the smartest things I did.

I’d always ask myself, “Well how are the cattle experiencing this?” So I’d get into the chutes and things. That way I could see what cattle were seeing.

I went around and looked at a whole bunch of work facilities and feed yards.

When I first discovered that my thinking was really different was when I asked people about something I thought they knew. Their descriptions were really vague.

I associate with things I’ve seen and experienced.

Arizona Agriculture: You said, “You have to expose students to interesting things to get them interested in interesting things.” With Arizona Farm Bureau’s various outreach activities that include on-farm events and our Ag in the Classroom program we’re trying to engage young people in agriculture. But, what do you think we should be doing differently or adding to what we do to keep making it interesting?

Grandin: Fight to keep your funding for FFA and other youth agriculture programs. I was talking to someone the other day that in California some wanted to cut funding to FFA but another group of people wrote personal letters to the Governor to save the program.

One of the most common questions people ask me is, “How did you develop a passion for cattle?”

I always answer that I got exposed to them on my Aunt’s ranch. If I hadn’t gone to my aunt’s ranch I wouldn’t have gone into the beef industry. It’s that simple. If I had not been exposed to cattle I would not have gotten interested in them.

If you don’t expose students to things you don’t get them interested in things.

Arizona Agriculture: You’ve accomplished so much. Is it fair to ask what accomplishment or accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Grandin: Back in 1999, when working with McDonald’s, I developed a very simple scoring system for evaluating slaughter plants. It was sort of like traffic rules for slaughter plants. It was real simple and it worked like a charm because plants knew exactly what they had to do. And they did it. The system had very clear standards.

I saw more change in 1999 and 2000 than I did my whole entire career prior to that.

When I was in Arizona, I had the mindset that I could fix the world with engineering. I can only fix half the problems with engineering. The other half is human behavior and the management.

Arizona Agriculture: Your Future Endeavors?

Grandin: I’m really concerned with the kids that are quirky and different that are not exposed enough to different careers. Right now I’m seeing them get addicted to video games and they’re going nowhere.

We have to get these kids in the physical world. Often when I give my talks I show off 3D printers as a tool for engagement. Why do I like 3D printers? Because it connects the electronic world to the physical world. It’s like a little glue gun that moves around. It’s a mechanical device that can keep kids engaged. We’ve got to get kids off the screens and onto different things.

We have a huge shortage in this country of the skilled trades. Part of this is because kids are not being exposed to the skilled trades. Areas like electrician, diesel mechanic, auto mechanic, welders.

I’m also focused on talking to groups about animal behavior in general. I kind of feel like at this point in my career I need to pass on knowledge.

Arizona Agriculture: What would you say to a group of young people wanting to go into agriculture?

Grandin: Try on different things in agriculture. Try different internships to see what you really like. Try on different careers. You want to make sure it’s something you’re going to like. I say that to every student.

I’m a big fan that when you’re in college you need to take your summers and work in relevant internships. I try to say that to every single student regardless of what their major happens to be.

You don’t want to go to school for four years and find out you hate what you actually studied in college. … Especially since our costs to go to college are unsustainable.

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