The mother of animal behaviour science, Temple Grandin brings her cattle-handling message back to Canada

Imagine looking at a paragraph in a book, taking a mental photograph of that paragraph, closing the book and reading the paragraph from the photo in your mind. That’s just a glimpse of what it’s like to see the world with autism and according to Dr. Temple Grandin it’s very similar to the way animals see the world too.

People think in words; animals think in pictures. Autistic people, like Grandin, also think in pictures.

So why does this matter to cattle farmers? Speaking last fall to a full house of cattle producers in Gray-Bruce County — the heart of Ontario beef cattle country — Grandin, an Animal Behaviour professor at Colorado State University, explained that a herding animal’s world is controlled by vision. She described how cattle and other prey animals such as horses, llamas, sheep, and elk see their world and she translated that insight into workable clues and solutions to help handle stock better, reducing stress and increasing production.

Grandin has spent a large part of her career designing livestock-handling systems that are currently in use in half of the slaughterhouses in the United States. She maintains that the flow of animals through handling systems can be made less stressful if you see things through their eyes, quite literally getting down on your hands and knees for a look.

What will you see? Details. That shadow could be a hole; slow-moving fan blades are as mesmerizing as a hypnotist’s watch; either will stop an animal dead in its tracks. A swinging piece of chain can provide hours of entertainment to a steer but doesn’t help when he needs to get moving. Different colours, contrasts of light and dark, flapping objects like a coat hung nearby, all provide enough distraction to stop the flow of animals.

“Get down in these chutes and see what your animals are seeing!” says Grandin, who prefers to use behaviour rather than force to move animals. She’s not saying that a prod isn’t useful at times, but it should never be a primary driving tool. Just use it and put it away, then look a bit deeper into why the animals are stopping or crowding and solve the problem instead of dealing with the symptoms.

All grazing animals have wide-angle vision to watch for predators and poor depth perception when their head is up, which is why they can’t tell the difference between a shadow and a hole. Other distractions can be a water bottle or a paper towel: pick it up! If they see reflections on metal or water or people up ahead, they won’t go. Windy days make animals harder to handle, as do sunny days that can play games with their sight. It’s not always possible to handle animals when bright sunshine isn’t in their faces, but in that case, Grandin suggests to let the lead animal have a good look or he’ll turn back on you.

This awareness of how they see their world can mean less stress for the animal, which in turn means better production, better-quality meat with reduced incidence of dark cutters, and less injury to people or animals.

Grandin also had three suggestions for facility design that will make a huge difference to handling:

1. Put solid sides in the right places,

2. Use non-slip flooring, and

3. Fix lighting. Solid fences keep animals calmer, so if you think there’s

a visibility issue, experiment with some plywood boards or cardboard to see if you can make a difference. “Don’t use floppy plastics; that will make things worse,” she says.

Grandin has found that every meat plant has flooring issues — it’s a constant maintenance issue. Look for skid marks in the wet manure to see where the animals slip.

Use indirect or natural lighting where possible, with translucent panels providing the best light. With a bit of advance planning you can, for example, lay out your squeeze chute so you’re not handling right into the sun.

Grandin has designed handling systems that take into account the natural behaviour of prey animals. Herding animals like to think they’re going back to where they came from, hence the circular configuration of the chutes. Several handling system blueprints are available on her website or


According to Temple Grandin, bull attacks are the No. 1 cause of livestock-related human deaths. Part of the solution may be changing the way we raise them. Put safety first and raise bulls the right way, advises Grandin. “We don’t want to be part of the bull’s social group.” The same applies to llamas and sheep. Pen calves with a group of five or six other calves at eight weeks old and let them socialize so they learn who they are and don’t end up with “mistaken identity issues.” Animals reared alone are more likely to attack people or other animals, and intact male grazing animals that are bottle fed can end up being the most dangerous. Dairy calves that are raised on nurse cows are less likely to attack people. And don’t touch their foreheads or play head butt games with calves — they’ll want to press back. Scratch them under their neck if you must.

in her books. The most critical part is where the crowd pen goes to single file and her drawings must be followed exactly.

She suggests drawing out your entire system to scale to prevent “a ton of mistakes.” Lay the whole system in lime and walk through it before you put a shovel in the ground, even if you’re only doing part of it right away.

It’s not only the details of the facilities that can be used to reduce stress. People want new things, says Grandin, but you can only fix half the problems with engineering. She would prefer adequate facilities with good management to a well-designed system with poor management to minimize stress. “Good stockman-ship pays,” says Grandin, and that includes understanding why animals do what they do.

When you move animals, be aware of working their flight zone to your best advantage. Put pressure on the flight zone, release the pressure when the animals move, and reapply the pressure when the cattle slow down.

When an animal pauses, says Grandin, it’s deciding what to do, alternating between fear and curiosity. “Don’t try to push them when they’re orienting,” she cautions — give them time to make up their mind. “It takes two seconds to get them upset but a half an hour to calm them. Go for a coffee!”

When you can reduce their fear, animals will voluntarily co-operate and are less stressed.

Stress is caused by fear and anxiety. Watch for tails swishing, heads up, or animals showing the whites of their eyes: all are signs of stress. Are they sweating? Is their skin quivering or their ears flicking? Are they passing lots of manure?

And as for yelling at them, “It needs to stop!” Grandin says emphatically.

More information on livestock-handling systems and animal behaviour can be found on Temple Grandin’s website at

About the author

Karen Dallimore's recent articles



Stories from our other publications