top of page


By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, WIA Media (January 2019)

Dr. (Mary) Temple Grandin is so much more than her title conveys. She is a prominent speaker, best-selling author, autism activist, and consultant on animal behavior. She advises some of the most prominent companies in the ag sector on the humane treatment of livestock, designing handling facilities that improve animal welfare and productivity.

These revolutionary cattle-handling systems transformed the U.S. meat industry in the 1990s, and today, almost half of the cattle in North America are handled via a restrainer system designed by Grandin. She also has authored over 400 articles on animal handling, welfare, and facility design, which have appeared in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals.

Driven by her connection with animals, formed in her teen years while living on her aunt’s ranch, and fueled by the insights and sensitivities that are a result of her autism (she did not talk until she was three-and-a-half years old), she was sure that becoming educated was the necessary path to sharing her exciting, game-changing ideas with others. Thus she earned her bachelor’s degree from Franklin Pierce College, her M.S. in Animal Science at Arizona State University, and her Ph.D in Animal Science from the University of Illinois.

From there, her unique designs, coupled with the mastery of her autism to assist in her success, have made Grandin somewhat of a superstar. She has been interviewed or featured on 20/20, the Today Show, the BBC (in a special called “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”), and 60 Minutes, and was recognized by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She has given hundreds of presentations, including her own TED talk entitled “The World Needs ALL Kinds of Minds”, has written 14 books, and was the subject of the HBO movie “Temple Grandin”.

The Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Summit was honored to have Grandin as a keynote speaker at its annual event in Denver in September 2018. WIA caught up with her just as she was about to go on stage to talk about the need for transparency in agriculture to a sold-out audience of nearly 800.

1. The humane handling of cattle has been your life calling. How did you push through with this as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

When I first started out in cattle handling in Arizona in 1971-72, there were absolutely no women working in the yards; the only women were in the office. I went around to feed yards and helped them work cattle. The scene in the movie [Temple Grandin] where the bull testicles were put on my car, that happened; getting kicked out of the feed yard because the cowboys’ wives didn’t like it, that happened. But I recognized doors that could be opened, like getting the editor’s business card and writing for the state farm magazine. I knew that if I started writing for them, it would get me in a lot of places. A week later I produced an article which was basically a summary of my master’s thesis on how cattle behave in different types of squeeze chutes. Then I did a pre-column, and then it got me into the National Cattlemen’s meetings. I learned early on to write; the other thing I learned was that a girl had to be about three times better than a guy. A big motivation for me was to prove I wasn't stupid.

2. How did you come to realize this was something you could make a difference with?

Well, it was a gradual thing, I originally started out working on equipment design. I had the engineering mentality that I could fix everything with equipment. The next step after that was training people how to handle cattle right, then the managers would un-train them for me, so then I started training the managers. The big break that really changed the packing plants was when I got hired by McDonald’s to teach their food safety auditors how to do welfare audits. I came up with a very simple scoring system for evaluating the plants. I didn’t tell them how to build a plant; I would simply score items. We’d score stunning – if you couldn’t get 95 percent dead on the first shot, you failed the McDonald’s audit – simple as that. I developed the scoring system in 1996-97 and wrote it up for the American Meat Institute in their guidelines. The McDonald’s audit in 1999 was a huge tipping point. I saw more change happen [from this] than in my whole career.

I scored five simple outcome measures: percentage rendered unconscious after one captive bolt shot; were the cattle dead when they were hung; how many animals fell down during handling; how many animals vocalized during handling (moo’ing in the stun box); and finally, we did an electric prod score. We looked at other things as well – closing gates on animals on purpose, poking them in sensitive areas, running animals over on top of other animals – all these resulted in automatic failures. And I taught the McDonald’s auditors how to do this audit. But the reason it worked is because the plant management knew up front exactly what they had to do, it wasn’t just vague ‘handle cattle well’.

3. Did the companies have measured increased production from these methods?

I worked with 75 beef and pork suppliers and only three had to build something expensive. We fixed most places with manipulating what was already there – changing the lighting to the chute entrance, adding nonslip flooring on the ramps, removing a swaying paper towel – simple things mostly.

We got rid of all the rough handling. But now the thing is, you have to keep monitoring. Video monitoring was put in place where auditors over the internet look at it. It’s just like traffic. It requires constant vigilance. You cannot relax the rules. Imagine what the freeway would be like if they stopped enforcing speed limits, red light stops and more. It’s constant vigilance just like food safety. You have to figure out the critical control points – the things that are really important to measure. You have to have simple guidelines that people can understand, and traffic rules are a very good model for designing a system.

4. How did developing the dip vat change your path?

It was a real opportunity for my career. The first dip vat project was in 1976 with McElhaney Cattle Company and in 1978 with the Red River Cattle Company. Scabies had hit Arizona and all the feed yards had to build dip vats. McElhaney asked me to design it. I said give me three weeks, because remember this is pre-internet so I needed time to do research.

The interesting thing is that Cheryl Sandberg has written about ‘lean in’ in that a guy will take a job at the 60 percent knowledge level and a girl is too chicken to take a job at that level. I was at a 60 percent level of knowledge when I said give me three weeks. I knew all the cattle stuff but I did not know the concrete reinforcement stuff. So that’s why I said give me three weeks because I figured I’d have to call people and get rebar layout. I think I went to every dip vat within a 50-mile radius of where I lived to get myself to the 90 percent level. But that was a major door that opened for me because I designed five or six other dip vats after that, as well as the cattle handling facilities that went with them. I grabbed that opportunity because a door like that only opens for a few seconds, and my instant response was ‘I can do it. Give me three weeks’.

5. You’ve said your passion is to “make real positive change in the real world”. What is your experience with this?

McDonald’s was a real turning point. I saw more change in the sector in those 18 months working with their auditors than I had in my whole career. Wendy’s and Burger King soon followed. These were real changes for the real world. And they knew that they needed to be vigilant and enforce these simple guidelines (the five-points objective scoring system) continuously.

Some companies wanted to modify the scoring system and I said ‘no, no, no’ you’re going to make the plants crazy. You’ve got to keep the rules the same from one plant to another. I likened it to traffic controls – there are basic, simple rules of the road that are the same in every state. A stop sign is a stop sign and drunk driving is not acceptable. We need to keep the rules the same so they can be easily and consistently followed. 6. What is your proudest accomplishment in the cattle sector?

I have several for different reasons. The first would be my engineering work on the center track restrainer. I took a wooden prototype for a piece of equipment that was about one-inch away from going in the garbage, rescued it, and made a real system that would work. The system is now used by half of the cattle handling facilities in the U.S.

My second proudest accomplishment is the five-point objective auditing system because I have seen the greatest changes come about from this. I originally did this work for the USDA, and then it became the AMI guidelines (now American Meat Institute). And the biggest amount of change came with working with McDonald’s to implement it. I would say 90 percent of the things we had to do involved repairs and management changes.

7. Would you say at this point that your being autistic has been a benefit?

Well yes, thinking in pictures has been a benefit. When I first started nobody thought to look at what cattle were seeing. There were two identical cattle handling facilities in Arizona – one worked well, and the other worked horribly. You know what the problem was? Orientation to the sun. It was that simple. Other people weren’t noticing. It’s job security for me.

When I was young, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I didn't know other people thought differently. For example, I recently visited a cattle plant in Ireland. The cattle were stopping at a certain point in the slaughter process. I got in there to see it like the cattle do and realized there were six little holes in the wall that were letting the light in that was making them stop. Six pieces of tape later, it was fixed. It’s that simple.

8. One of your favorite quotes is “Obstacles are those terrible things you see when you take your eyes off the goal” by Henry Ford. What’s your next big goal?

My biggest goal now is to help the young kids.

They are not doing things with their hands today. They don’t know how to tinker and make things work, and are not socially and emotionally prepared for life – and this is normal kids, not just those on the autism spectrum. They are not learning the skills to work. I have to copyedit graduate student papers because their writing skills are atrocious. This is basic stuff, such as kids not knowing how to greet people. We are now having seminars on how to network at conventions. Kids aren’t learning basic skills. And it hurts the autistic kids even worse.

9. It has been said that your speaking engagement fees go towards paying full tuition for your students – 20 of them at this point. What is the motivation for this act of kindness?

This is a part of helping the younger generation. I want them to come out of college debt-free so they can focus on making changes and being successful. You know what I’ve learned – I did some ranch projects for super-rich people very early in my career – was that having a Lear jet in your hangar doesn’t buy happiness. One of the happiest people in the world lived near my aunt’s ranch – he was an x-ray technician who lived in a really modest house but he was happy.

10. At Women in Agribusiness, we highlight women in leadership roles and often detail the path that led them there. What advice do you have for someone trying to make a difference like you have?

You have to pick your goals and make a commitment to make them happen. You have to be exceptionally good at what you do. You have to push through. You have to sell your work, not yourself. Put your portfolio out there. This is the way I sold Cargill back in the late 80s– I sent big fold-out drawings, pictures of jobs, a very professional brochure, and a cover letter. Sell your work with your portfolio. The other thing I did is I wrote about the projects when I got them done.

Pick your battles and don't let politics get in the way of achievement. Right now for me as I speak to parents with young kids, I tell them the kids have to learn how to work from an early age – paper routes, dog walking, church volunteer jobs – and recognize that there are different ways that people think. And to work together with the visual thinkers, the math thinkers, and the word thinkers to build skills.

And mentors are super important. I had my mother when I was little, my third grade teacher in elementary school, my science teacher in high school, and there were some good people in the cattle industry. They tend to find you, but you have to walk through the door to meet them. Mentors matter a whole lot.


Do you have a story you'd like to contribute to WIA Today? Or a suggestion for a story, or comments about an article? Please reach out to Michelle Marshall at and share your thoughts. We'd love to hear from you.

bottom of page