MORE than 500 people showed up at the campus of Michigan State University last week to hear Dr. Temple Grandin discuss "big" agriculture and how it compares to "small" agriculture.
Grandin began by discussing society's lack of farm knowledge but noted that many people want to learn about food production and from where their food originates.
She told the attendees that the millennial generation is more concerned about where food comes from, but 31% of kids have never been on a farm. She also referenced a survey from the U.K. that revealed that 50% of young adults in the region failed to connect pigs with bacon.
Fewer people understand agriculture, yet the general public has, nonetheless, become a large influence on U.S. agricultural production practices, especially in animal agriculture.
Grandin used sow gestation stalls as an example of how societal views have changed the pork industry.
"Even though science says gestation stalls are okay, two-thirds of the public says they are not going to accept that kind of confinement" for pigs, she explained, while emphasizing that science is not able to answer every question about animal welfare.
Grandin said she believes that the public's views lie somewhere in the middle of the road but that one problem with the internet is that it magnifies the voices of the radicals on either side of an issue.
In regards to animal rights websites, she said, "It's a little bit like saying everybody drives drunk and that a picture of wrecked cars and smashed-up drunken drivers is representative of driving. No, that is just not the case. Things are not all that simple."
Grandin said one thing that always comes across in survey responses she reads is that "big" is bad.
"I see badly managed big and badly managed small, and vice versa," Grandin explained. "Overworked and understaffed is bad — big or small. It's not so simple to say 'big is bad.' Big can learn from small, and small can learn from big."
When asked for specifics, Grandin explained that small farms can learn about quality assurance from big farms, and big farms can learn about cover crops and crop rotation from small farms.
In fact, she said in slaughterhouses, big facilities had actually gotten ahead of small facilities in terms of auditing programs and told the audience that she had seen horror shows in small operations, too.
She also explained that scientific responses will not always work with the public and that having standards doesn't mean everything is okay.
"One thing we have to make sure doesn't happen in regards to treatment of animals is that we don't allow bad to become normal," Grandin emphasized.
Lameness in dairy cows, she said, is a good example of bad becoming normal. Additionally, by pushing the dairy cow biologically to make more and more milk, reproduction in dairy cattle has really been affected.
Using the laying hen as another example, Grandin said, "We've pushed the laying hen genetically for more and more and more eggs, but now, her osteoporosis and broken bone rate is 20% under the best conditions and 80% under the worst. That is bad becoming normal. We just cannot let bad become normal."
Last, she expressed her concern about over-selecting for a single trait and breeding all of the resistance out of animals, noting, "If you breed an animal or plant just for productivity, there are costs."
With genetics, she suggested that bad is becoming normal, because the industry isn't observing what others are doing.
She referenced a new study that found that a Chinese breed of pigs resisted porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome better than the hybrid domesticated pigs.
"We talk about feeding a hungry world, but dead pigs don't feed a hungry world," Grandin said of the decreased disease resistance.
"I think we're going to need to back off just a tiny bit — maybe 5%, maybe 10% — breed the strength back in, breed the reproduction back in," she said of breeding practices.
Little ag can help big ag in terms of bringing in some older genetics, Grandin told the audience.
She explained how heritage breeds in the hog industry have a "big military and no economy," but the domesticated breeds have a "big economy and a tiny military." Their immune systems need to be improved through genetics.
She said dairy cow lameness, pig disease and laying hen issues have happened without the industry even realizing it and blamed it on the industry wanting what is maximal instead of what is optimal.
"The real world is not perfect," she said. "We can make it really good, but we can't make it perfect."
Grandin emphasized that the war among natural, organic, big ag, free-range and other niche markets needs to stop because "they all have a legitimate place in the marketplace."