What is Humane?: Temple Grandin and the Birth of Conscientious Ranching

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At Rosso & Flynn, our game is quality. From the beginning, our business has been built on seeking out ranchers who guarantee the best meat in Texas, and soon learned those ranches were going to be as committed to humanely raising their livestock as we were committed to getting it to your door. But in an age that finds the American food economy attempting to rid itself of empty marketing buzzwords like “all-natural” and “farm-fresh,” a worthy question may arise: “What does ‘humane’ even mean?”

The HFAC

Fortunately for livestock around the country (and for interested foodies like us), a nonprofit called Human Farm Animal Care (HFAC) decided to circumvent a legislative process they saw as unacceptably slow, and compile a list of standards by which ranches could claim the title of “Certified Humane Raised and Handled®” without waiting for Congress to create a set of lobby-influenced standards.

But while the practice of factory farming for maximum output and minimum attention to animal well-being has been around for hundreds of years, HFAC only came together in 1998. Were we less compassionate before the nineties? As it turns out, the story of the world’s consciousness around factory farming has an unlikely but singularly capable contributor. Enter Temple Grandin, a member of HFAC’s scientific committee.

Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin, a Boston native and current professor at Colorado State University, is world-renowned as a pioneer of modern thought around autism. One of the first public figures to embrace public knowledge of her own autism, she is praised for the bridge she offers between those living with autism and those attempting to embrace and understand the lives and mindsets of those on the spectrum. 

However, her first title is not “autism spokesperson,” as her life in academia focuses not on humans, but on animals –– primarily livestock and the attempt to develop an understanding of what “humane” treatment of an animal should look like. Her website itself holds dozens of simple, straightforward pages outlining easy fixes to livestock-handling methods, from the importance of silence while using a cattle prod to the proper way to deal with an agitated steer. The notes and references attached to said tips open the door to hundreds of pages of literature outlining her approach to livestock handling from the mind of the animal. The methods are astoundingly simple; most pages contain only a series of bullet points and an image, offering a glimpse into the mind of a herding animal that could be a complete change in a rancher’s approach to moving livestock.

What does “humane” look like in practice?

In her 1998 entry in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Grandin outlines the initial methods by which she developed an objective scoring system for slaughter facilities.  Based on the facilities’ rates of success in stunning, prod use, prevention of animal slipping, and other percentage-based metrics, Grandin contributed a framework to the growing interest in the psychology and mental health of animals bound for slaughter.  This study, along with extensive literature introducing new approaches (like considering an animal’s memory of former treatment when considering current treatment), helped bring the positive effects of humane treatment into the popular eye.

So what can one expect from an HFAC-certified ranch? The guides to the various Animal Care Standards begin with an outline of the 5 main concerns in animal care:

  • Access to wholesome and nutritious feed

  • Appropriate environmental design

  • Caring and responsible planning and management

  • Skilled, knowledgeable, and conscientious animal care

  • Considerate handling, transport, and slaughter

Feed

In general, feed and feed-access regulations remain constant across the several livestock animals. Except for particular exceptions like sickness or transport to slaughter, animals must have free access to wholesome feed “Appropriate to their age and species”, with guidelines presented by the National Research Council for diet in accordance with geographical area. Feed records must be maintained and available to HFAC inspectors. No “mammalian- or avian-derived protein” products are permitted in feed, with the exception of milk for mammals and eggs for birds. In general, growth promoters are prohibited and antibiotics are only permitted for disease treatment and under the supervision of a veterinarian. Particular attention is paid to the nutritional health of mammals, with body condition ratings available to ensure reproductive health throughout the lifespan, as well as guidelines for weaning and avoiding changes in feed. Particular to each animal are water requirements, with trough-cleaning guidelines for cattle and pigs, and minimum drinkers per chicken.

Environment

Environment regulation are particular to the size of the animal, but each guide suggests specific figures related to spacing per animal, lying areas, air quality and ventilation, lighting, temperature, birthing areas, and cleanliness, among other metrics intended to track the environment’s support of the animals’ physical and mental health. Additional, HFAC provides signs that could warn of dangerous conditions. For example, calluses, soft feet and bruised soles could be signs that floors are not rigid enough to be effectively cleaned, or that the facility’s surfaces are not successfully preventing slippage or overcrowding in passageways. All records reports pertaining to a facility’s metrics weighed against the HFAC standards must be presentable to inspectors.

Management

Much of the management requirement section addresses manager training that naturally cannot be quantified as easily as feed or space. Beyond having a copy of HFAC’s Animal Care Standards and remaining familiar with the guidelines, managers are responsible for keeping rigid records pertaining to the health of their animals and acknowledging issues to superiors when they arise. In developing a training system for their managers, operators ensure workers keep accurate records of mortality and injury, along with educating themselves on common disease symptoms and diagnosis methods. Managers are responsible for compassionately and quietly handling animals when they are stressed, with special attention paid to cattle in particular (on account of acute hearing and wide field of vision). This is specially addressed with regard to large automatic equipment that may produce unwanted noise to the herd or flock. For mammals, identification methods like branding and tagging are limited to relatively painless techniques (HFAC recommends freeze branding over hot branding).

Health

Health standards vary among the different animals, but generally require the development of a health plan in consultation with a veterinarian along with strict record-keeping related to the health of the group of animals as a whole. By tracking common ailments, managers are more able to diagnose adverse conditions in their facility or health program and thus prevent them. Lameness in chickens is considered a common indicator of poor conditions, as well as poor foot conditions in pigs and a host of issues for cattle, from enteritis to respiratory diseases. In the case of sick animals, outlines for segregation are provided, as well as a requirement for practical prevention of all internal and external parasites. Finally, facilities must be prepared to humanely euthanize casualty animals without delay, ensure their death (in the case of chickens) and dispose of the body in accordance with local law.

Transportation

The requirements transportation of pigs are relatively simple: no electrical prods, sufficient food and water, and workers trained to recognize potential stress factors in pigs. For cattle, expectations are more involved. As herd animals, cattle must be led through passageways in a manner that will decrease the likelihood of overcrowding or loud noise. Ramps must not exceed 20% incline and must be clean and well-lit. Records must be kept around transport date, number of animals moved, vehicle type and trucking company, and every effort must be made to decrease the time over which animals are confined to transport vehicles or pens. Chickens, however, require a fascinating level of consideration in transport. Along with requirements for clean and well-ventilated crates and houses, a degree of care must be paid to all the birds other than the one being caught, to ensure a low fear level for remaining birds as they sense depopulation of the flock. Catching must be conducted without obstacle and in low-light, and a number of workers must be committed to monitoring the flock to ensure the depopulation does induce stress on the birds yet to be caught. In a similar vein, HFAC requirements for the slaughter of pigs and cattle refer to guidelines set by the American Meat Institute (AMI), while those for chickens are highly involved, outlining procedures for minimizing wait time before processing, developing an animal welfare policy, stunning technique and proper methods for restraining animals.


All information cited comes from three documents found on the Humane Farm Animal Care website.