FARGO, N.D. -- America's most famous animal scientist has a message for North Dakota State University agriculture students: Speak up. "It takes more effort to get the word out on good stuff than it does on bad stuff -- 10 times more effort, but i...
FARGO, N.D. -- America's most famous animal scientist has a message for North Dakota State University agriculture students:
"It takes more effort to get the word out on good stuff than it does on bad stuff -- 10 times more effort, but it can be done," Grandin told more than 200 students and agricultural faculty. "Use your social networks. It doesn't even cost anything. You've got to do it."
Grandin, 65, wearing a Colorado State University green and gold western-embossed shirt, seemed at home in North Dakota State University's Shepperd Arena. From the livestock arena floor, she offered both technical descriptions about improving animal care across numerous livestock species, and advice about how to improve the livestock industry's image.
She is famous for overcoming her own autism and designing and certifying livestock handling facilities to reduce stress, and for her work for more than a decade with companies like McDonald's restaurants to improve conditions in slaughter plants.
The subject of an Emmy-winning HBO movie in 2010, Grandin is a celebrity among students, many of whom asked to be photographed or get autographs from her.
Grandin said she doesn't expect large restaurant chains to do public relations campaigns on behalf of farmers, but farmers today have unprecedented access to various public constituents through the Internet. "You've got Facebook pages," Grandin said. "How many people here have Facebook friends in major cities?" More than half of the students raised their hands.
"Get on there and start posting those pictures, telling them about the beef plant video, about other good videos," she said. "How many people have seen 'I'm Farming and I Grow it?'" she asked, referring to a video parody by Kansas State University students that showed some pride in agriculture and went viral on the Internet.
"Well, those K-State students put the big PR companies to shame," Grandin said. "They did a great job. We need to be doing more things like that."
Students should post images of simple things. "Just taking care of calves -- you can take Facebook pictures and send them to your friends in Chicago," she said.
"What's chores to you is interesting to the public. Things like feed wagons, dishing out feed. They've never seen anything like that before. Or just explaining how a squeeze-chute works. And how you vaccinate. And that feedlots have hospitals and that we actually give individual care to cattle. Those are the kind of things we need to be showing people. I talk about that stuff all of the time. We've got to show all the good stuff we do."
Grandin said she doesn't know whether large restaurant chains will have much to do with telling agriculture's positive story.
There are things that the livestock industry must fix on its own.
Grandin said the consuming public thinks of the beef industry as more of a "factory farm" than it does the dairy industry -- with its stanchions and barn care. "In fact, it's just the opposite," she said. "Beef's done a lousy job of communicating with the public. We need to be putting up our own videos. We need to just open up the door, electronically."
Grandin often is quoted for interpretation after a video is taken inside a livestock enterprise and exposed by animal rights groups.
"There are just some practices that are going to have to change. It's just that simple," she said. "Docking dairy calves (tails), and they wiggle that nub and they've got flies all over them? That's a real turn-off for the public. Just don't do it."
Grandin declined to assess whether groups like the Humane Society of the United States are getting stronger or more influential in the U.S. policy scene.
"What we have to do is tell our story and clean up our house where it needs to be cleaned up. (Livestock) handling is one of the bright spots, but I'm getting really concerned about the heat stress issue" in feedlots, she said.
Among specific topics raised by students are:
•Castration and pain control -- There are so-called "chemical castration" products, but it's really more like a vaccination that prevents testosterone production, she said. "I think we're going to have to explain things." She added that pigs will need castration for meat quality.
•Animal breeding -- Grandin said breeding pigs and other animals so they grow faster can also have a negative impact and reduce their immune systems.
•Shade cloths for beef feedlots -- They need to be laid out north-to-south so the shadow moves, to keep manure from building up, Grandin said. They have to be taken down in the wintertime because they don't take snow loads. "I'll tell you the secret to using shade cloths: a lot of grommets, stretched really tight," she says.
•Hot iron branding -- "That's not high on my list" of animal care concerns, she said. "Unfortunately until we get really cheap DNA testing -- like a dollar a head -- then we can get rid of branding."
Also in Fargo, Grandin spoke to some groups on her concerns over autism, and the fate of children who don't fit the mold.
"At one end of the (autism) spectrum, you've got Steve Jobs and Einstein, and at the other end of the spectrum, you've got somebody that's very, very handicapped," she said. "I'm seeing too many kids that are kind of quirky and different going nowhere. They're getting addicted to video games. They're not getting out and getting good jobs, and learning enough job skills."
She added that one person who turned her around as a kid was her science teacher.
"We have a shortage now of things like diesel and auto mechanics and I'm getting really concerned." She added that Colorado has taken the hands-on classes out of the schools. "It's the worst thing they ever did."