Researchers examine animal well-being ethics
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Today, it's not just animal-rights activists who are asking questions about how farm animals are raised.
Food animal well-being has become a mainstream issue with consumers and businesses as well. Recent news headlines have touted the "Free-Farmed" food label, which certifies the compassionate treatment of farm animals, and McDonald's Corp. efforts to set welfare guidelines for its poultry suppliers.
Researchers at Purdue University also are asking questions about farm animal well-being and supplying some of the scientific support for sound livestock handling practices.
"Producers have always been animal welfarists," says Jeff Armstrong, head of Purdue's Department of Animal Sciences. "But while researchers and producers see the relationship between animal well-being and productivity, consumers may not."
Armstrong, who is on national animal welfare committees for McDonald's and for the egg and pork producers, says more research needs to be done in this area.
"The challenge is to scientifically evaluate our production practices to ensure that we are raising animals in humane ways," he says. "And when necessary, show producers where changes need to be made."
Promoting animal well-being is one of the primary goals of Purdue's Food Animal Productivity and Well-Being Center. Purdue scientists have joined with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Livestock Behavior Unit, also located at Purdue, and other groups to create one of the few locations in this country where multi-disciplinary animal well-being research is underway.
Current research projects integrate discoveries in animal well-being with developments in meat quality, pre-harvest food safety, genetics and farm production systems.
Center director Paul Thompson, a bioethicist, says Purdue's efforts are unique because of the variety of perspectives that come into the discussion. "It's not just about raising a healthy animal," he says. "We are also considering quality of life and other ethical concerns."
Ed Pajor, assistant professor of animal sciences, says aspects of well-being can be measured in a variety of ways. Scientists are developing methods for determining well-being based on behavior, physiology, productivity, health and other indicators.
Part of the dilemma for researchers is sorting through conflicting signs. For example, what's considered normal behavior may not always be nice. "Aggression, whether its fighting for food or establishing who's 'Boss Hog' is a natural behavior, but it also causes some unpleasant conditions for animals," he points out.
Pajor says there also are trade-offs between good animal-health practices and those that may be too restrictive to the animal. McDonald's has announced that it will fund some of Pajor's alternative sow housing research.
"Individual stalls allow for good animal management, but limit an animal's movement and ability to socialize," Pajor says. He is looking into group housing arrangements and larger stalls.
The following are examples of other animal well-being research projects at Purdue:
In Pajor's studies of sows and litters, he wanted to know if given the choice, would sows spend more or less time with their offspring and what would be the effect on the piglets at weaning. When given the freedom to move out of their pens, most of the sows chose to spend time away from the piglets and for long periods of time. "The piglets kept in these 'get-away' pens were better prepared for the eventual weaning and separation from the sow," he says.
In his studies of what dairy cattle consider to be aversive handling, Pajor found a definite dislike among cows for practices such as using cattle prods and yelling. "When you need them to move, a pat on the rump or a simple twist of the tail are most effective and well-received by the animals," he says. Knowing that may seem trivial, but Pajor says mishandled cows are more difficult to handle. They also give less milk, particularly when the person who mishandles them is present at milking.
Bill Muir, a professor of animal sciences, has developed a genetic method of "group selection" that can be used to modify behavior in animal species. Muir used the method to develop a line of kinder, gentler chickens that do not peck on each other. Muir says changing the genetic line means the chickens can keep their long beaks, rather than have them trimmed to keep them from harming each other. Based at least in part on this research, the poultry industry as well as McDonald's have established the goal of eliminating beak trimming in the near future. USDA researcher Heng-wei Cheng is partnering with Muir to understand the mechanisms involved with behavior in hens.
USDA researcher Susan Eicher's studies of transportation in the pork industry give new meaning to the phrase "lean and mean." Her studies show that today's leaner pigs are more stressed during transport, which leads to more deaths. "Some of these problems may be handled with better breeding programs," she says. "But it may also be that we need to learn different ways of handling these particular pigs."
Eicher, a dairy immunologist with a background in human development, says she was surprised by some of her research on tail-docking in dairy cattle, a practice that is increasingly used to improve milking parlor hygiene. "For the adult cows, docking the tails didn't seem to bother them. They showed no behavioral or physiological effects," she says. "In the calves, however, the experience was different and more bothersome, suggesting that the effects of the process are age specific." This study was recently published in the Journal of Dairy Science.
Sources: Jeff Armstrong, (765) 494-4808; firstname.lastname@example.org
Ed Pajor, (765) 496-6665; email@example.com
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-2722; firstname.lastname@example.org
Other sources: Paul Thompson, (765) 494-4276; email@example.com
Bill Muir, (765) 494-8032; firstname.lastname@example.org
Heng-wei Cheng, (765) 494-8022; email@example.com
Susan Eicher, (765) 496-3665; firstname.lastname@example.org