Aaron Ault says he almost missed what was to become the inspiration for his cattle-handling system.
“We’d ordered some movies from Netflix, and I saw this one called ‘Temple Grandin’ about an autistic girl,” he recalls. “My wife said, ‘You really should watch it,’ but I figured she was just trying to get me to watch some chick flick. But she said, ‘No, it’s about the beef industry. I think you’d really like it.’”
Ault farms in Fulton County, Ind., with his dad, Carl, and a few employees. He annually feeds out about 3,000 head of Holsteins. With his wife’s nudging, he decided to give the movie a look and was fascinated. The movie explains how growing up with autism helped Grandin better understand how cattle see the world. Ault was so impressed that he ordered a couple of her books to learn more.
“People tend to think that animals think and see the world the same way we do,” Ault says. “But Grandin’s whole premise is that cattle perceive and process the world entirely differently than humans, and that if we try to treat them like people, we’re going to make them miserable.”
Test the theory
After watching the movie, Ault wanted to try some of the strategies himself. The first thing he tried was closing the lead-in chute to the hydraulic chute where cattle are treated.
“If it were me in that situation, I’d want to be able to see what’s going on around me,” he says. “But cattle are basically prey animals that are programmed to feel threatened and be looking for predators. When we closed off that chute with plywood so they couldn’t see to the right or left, they were much calmer and handled easier.”
Next, he tried an experiment with loading baby calves. Normally they must essentially be pushed on the trailer by hand. Grandin says that since cattle’s eyes are on the sides of their heads to see predators, they have very poor depth perception and literally have no idea how far they’re stepping up or down. She says if you allow them 30 seconds to assess the situation and figure out that they’re not in danger, then they’ll proceed forward.
Ault counted to 28, and then the first three calves stepped into the trailer. The rest followed, and all he did was close the trailer gate. The same thing also worked when he went to unload calves.
“That sold me,” Ault recalls. “I found that not only could I move the calves faster, but that both the calves and I were less stressed.”
Design the system
Inspired by the success he’d experienced with his experiments, in 2013 Ault set out to design a whole system based entirely on Grandin’s principles. He was preparing to build a large monoslope finishing barn and set aside a 100-by-100-foot area in the barn to handle and work cattle.
First, he did extensive research. Then, in what can only be described as a sheer-guts leap of faith, Ault decided to build the heart of his handling system in concrete, despite not knowing anyone else who had tried that.
“We could have built it in steel for half the price, but it would have only lasted 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Plus, with steel, there are always issues with it breaking, bowing or rusting. By putting it in concrete, we knew that those things wouldn’t be a problem, and it will also be here longer than I will.”
The system includes curved alleyways with solid-steel tube gates to encourage cattle to move naturally through the system without exciting them. But the most challenging part of building the system was the curved, V-shaped lead-in chute, with walls 16 inches thick at the bottom and 4 inches at the top.
“I’ve got to give my concrete contractor a lot of credit on that one,” Ault says. “That was probably the most challenging project he’d ever done.”
Reap the rewards
Ault says his gamble in going with concrete has proved to be a good decision.
“The cattle are much happier, and it’s so much easier and safer to work them than it was before,” he says.
He says that by reducing stress on the cattle, his system reduces instances of them going off feed. More importantly, during the critical “shipping fever” period when calves are getting vaccinations, the system greatly reduces stress on the animals when they’re already severely stressed.
Perhaps the biggest win of all is that the system is inside the barn. “One of the biggest challenges of farm labor is maintaining a steady workload throughout the year,” Ault says. “By this being inside a nice covered facility, it allows us to work cattle on days where it’s not fit to be outside. It keeps our employees happy and busy doing essential tasks that are productive, not just make-work jobs.”
Learn more about low-stress animal handling at Temple Grandin’s website, grandin.com.
Boone writes from Wabash, Ind.