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Consideration of behavioural opportunity in farm animal welfare standards

28 Sep 2018 | Laura Higham | Sheep | Poultry | Pigs | Cattle | Animal health

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To drive positive outcomes for all aspects of animal welfare, Laura Higham, outlines why she believes that vets and consumers should support the assurance schemes that facilitate behavioural opportunity for all species, and help to provide a good life for animals.

The BVA’s recent #ChooseAssured campaign kick-starts the UK veterinary profession’s dialogue with consumer audiences regarding farm animal assurance schemes.

The campaign’s infographic (PDF 1.46 MB) simply and effectively compares the standards of seven prominent schemes in terms of selected BVA priority areas, to support consumers’ purchasing decisions. It shows that only two schemes completely prohibit confinement systems for laying hens and sows, highlighting the facilitation of normal behaviours as a critical differentiating factor between the standards.

To drive positive outcomes for all aspects of animal welfare, Laura Higham, outlines why she believes that vets and consumers should support the assurance schemes that facilitate behavioural opportunity for all species, and help to provide a “good life” for animals.

In the UK, farm assurance schemes certify most of the livestock we produce, offering defined standards for animal welfare, food safety and environmental practices. Compliance with such schemes has become a market qualifier for farmers to supply UK supermarkets, but the potential benefits generated by this method of product differentiation for animals and farmers may not have been fully captured to date, due to an uninformed consumer base. Farm assurance is an area in which shoppers are thought to have a limited level of understanding, potentially due to the diversity of labels on packs and the complexity of standards for individual livestock species.

Consumer power

The potential to leverage the benefits of such schemes exists through a growing contingent of conscientious consumers - an emerging trend coined the ‘Citizen Shift’, in which individuals are wishing to create a more positive society including utilising their spending power to drive ethical food supply chains. 

Not least – they are interested in the animal welfare standards behind the meat, milk and egg products they buy. The #ChooseAssured campaign is a means of establishing a dialogue between vets and consumers, allowing us to drive purchasing decisions towards animal-based foods produced to the standards we advocate.

Differentiating factors

The #ChooseAssured infographic compares seven schemes according to their requirements for:

  • Stunning prior to slaughter
  • Veterinary involvement in health planning
  • Prohibition of environments that substantially reduce behavioural opportunity
  • Responsible use of antimicrobials, animal health and biosecurity
  • Lifetime assurance and measures to protect the environment.  

There is broad agreement amongst schemes across most of the BVA priority areas; however, confinement systems that substantially reduce behavioural opportunity for laying hens and sows are only completely prohibited by two out of five relevant schemes - RSPCA-Assured and Soil Association, setting apart the facilitation of normal behaviours as a critical differentiating factor between the standards.

Species-specific behaviour

As a component of the FAWC’s five freedoms of animal welfare, facilitating normal behaviours should be considered a requirement in the husbandry of all species, not a feature of premium farm assurance standards alone. Indeed, more modern animal welfare philosophy views good welfare as a ‘life worth living’ or a ‘good life for animals’, and such definitions further elevate the importance of environmental enrichment in animal husbandry and positive indicators of welfare, including species-specific behaviours and play behaviours.

Although such behaviours would be conspicuous in their absence in the assessment of companion animal welfare, their importance is not as prominent in farm animals. For example, use of the enriched colony cage for the productive lifetime of laying hens impedes the performance of dust bathing in hens, and use of the farrowing crate for 4-5 weeks prevents nest making in farrowing sows.

Proponents of these confinement systems refer to their favourable health and productivity outcomes - for example, reduced prevalence of infectious diseases, reduced risk of keel bone damage in hens and reduced piglet mortality. But prioritising a limited repertoire of health and performance outcomes and excluding behavioural enrichment fails to capture the full impact of a farming practice or assurance scheme on animal welfare.

Challenging norms

In driving sustained improvements in animal welfare, it is necessary to question some of the ‘norms’ that are engrained in standard farming practice. For example, the farrowing crate was designed to reduce laid-on piglet mortality,  and coupled with genetic selection of sows for litter size has created a highly efficient pig production system, but one that does not facilitate normal sow behaviours at farrowing.

In free-farrowing systems, genetic selection for maternal behaviours is much more important to reduce the incidence of laid-on piglet mortalities, and together with effective free-farrowing pen infrastructure, provides a robust solution to mitigating the trade-off between providing behavioural opportunity and increasing piglet mortality.

Likewise, genetic selection in commercial laying hens has focused on prolific egg production over a 72-week lifecycle, but increasing productivity is linked to osteoporosis. Keel bone fractures are a manifestation of this problem, and are often less prevalent in cage systems compared to cage-free environments, due to limited freedom of movement.

This argument supports the confinement of laying hens based on a limited repertoire of health outcomes; but selecting robust laying hen genetics that are suitable for cage-free environments allowing hens to exhibit their full behavioural repertoire, and reviewing the design of house furniture to reduce keel bone fractures, offer more sustainable solutions that optimise all welfare outcomes.   

I believe it is time for vets to be constructively critical about the systems deployed to farm the animals under our care, and support a shift towards those that generate balanced outcomes for all aspects of animal welfare, including physical health and psychological wellbeing. Because – as highlighted by the #ChooseAssured campaign - when it comes to facilitating normal, species-specific behaviours, some of the most prevalent standards for farm animal production in the UK are falling short of our ambition to provide a “good life” for all animals.

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