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Finding the balance in animal welfare

Animal welfare is taking an increasingly important place in pig production. Adding more constraints to pig producers by animal welfare legislation is a tendency that cannot continue forever. Dr Hans Spoolder, cluster leader animal health and welfare at Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands, explains where the ends will meet.

By Vincent ter Beek

“In Northern European countries, animal welfare has taken an important position on the agenda. In Southern Europe, increasing amounts of attention for this topic can be noted too. Of course, there is scepticism, producers asking themselves whether more attention for animal welfare can be called progress…
“The UK pig industry, for instance, has known a fair amount of problems. The country has had to deal with increased welfare legislation when also at that same time blue ear disease (PRRS) was around. In addition, there were a couple of other problems, including a very strong pound sterling. This all caused the market to diminish.
“When talking to people in the academic world or people in the industry, however, I can sense animal welfare is important and will become even more important. In the future, a balance needs to be found between the many questions and demands from society and the possibilities for pig producers to earn a living.
Pigs in the fields: Welfare as practised in e.g. Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands
“It is known that, as soon as animal welfare is improved – and the level of welfare standards no longer can be classified as terrible – production results and health are both improved. At a certain point, however, kind of a ceiling will be reached. Allocating 10 m2 to a pig may have the same effect to it as allocating 100 m2.
Increasing welfare levels may still be possible, but health levels and production results will hit this ceiling. As long as there are still countries on this way up, meaning that there is still room for improving welfare and health status, animal welfare will improve as it is beneficial for pig producers.
“This development is growing within Europe, judging after the demands of e.g. members of the public or EU politicians, but also internationally, as organisations like the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization, VtB) and the OIE (Organization for Animal Health, VtB) have started doing more and more with animal welfare.”
“The main focus for improvement in pigs comes down to space – both its quantity and quality. I expect that the figures in the current EU Directive (Table 1) are below what is needed from an animal point of view, especially in the end of the finishing section. These figures will be reviewed in the near future. The Netherlands is ahead of the rest in this discussion, with a compulsory space allocation of one square metre by 2013.
“A second focus point would be that pigs are currently being kept in fairly bare surroundings and this will enhance problems related to behaviour. Tailbiting may be the most well-known among them. This means that the quality of the space is very important – what to offer a pig, what can it play with, what can it do? Hopefully the next set of years will reveal what way will be the best.
“A third point of attention would be transport. I understand that in one of the US states there’s a law prohibiting horse slaughter. The result is that horses are either abandoned or transported to a nearby state to be slaughtered there after a two-day journey. This is one example, and there are several more elsewhere in the world. I cannot imagine that the practice of millions of animals crossing (state) borders every year will continue to be happening. I expect and also hope that increasing amounts of animals will be slaughtered where they were produced.”
Output parameters
“One important change includes that there will be a stop to regulations as to what shape a pig house should be, how many hands of straw have to be given to the animals, how many square metres should be allocated and what should be the maximum duration to transport the animals. Instead, we shall go towards a system judging the animals, and by observing them a clear verdict can be given as to the way of keeping the animals by producers. These are so-called ‘output-parameters’. For instance, using data related to skin lesions, the number of cripple animals in a lorry or the mortality rate in a farm, it is possible to deduce whether a transport or a producing system has been decent.
“This approach would bring enormous advantages. Firstly, pigs themselves would benefit as essentially all one does is asking the animals whether the welfare has been all right. Secondly, producers won’t have to abide by so many regulations. They just have to be good farmers. Their own management capacities and own ideas will become more important.
“This approach is not new. In the European Union, a similar approach has been tested when trying to introduce the Broiler Directive. In this directive, it was all about the population density of broilers – so how many broilers on a square metre? What was attempted in this legislation was to make this dependent on what the foot pads of the bird looked like – judging after foot lesions. When the population density would be too high or when bedding material would be too bad, foot lesions will appear. On the basis of these results, it is fair to tell poultry producers that they would have to downsize the number of broilers on a square metre. This would’ve been a first step towards output legislation, but it hasn’t made it all the way to become a directive yet.
“In addition, Wageningen Livestock Research is a partner in the worldwide Welfare Quality project, which recently released protocols for the structured assessment of animal welfare, based on output parameters.
“Internationally, these ideas also make sense as the OIE developed three normative systems, or ‘Standards’, for animal welfare. One is about requirements as to animals culling during disease outbreaks, the second is related to transport and the third to slaughter. Output parameters have been key in this approach. So, for everyone across the world in pig production, the message is not: you’ll have to do it this or that way, but: this or that has to be the outcome.”
Gestation crates
“As a welfare researcher, I have one more additional condition and that is that animals have the liberty to turn around. As far as I am concerned we cannot keep intelligent animals like pigs in a box in which they can’t turn around properly – only stand up or lie down. That used to be a clear difference in thinking between the majority of European researchers on one side and American or Australian on the other, although I can see that a change is about to happen.
“Both in the US, Australia and in Europe, scientists apply a purely scientific approach. In science, however, one can follow lines of thoughts that can be either more ethical or more scientific. Hitherto, American and Australian scientists have generally applied a stressphysiological basis. This means: take a look at the animals and judge upon the basis of e.g. its physiology, health and stress. This way a verdict can be reached as a pig should be perfectly capable to be put in a crate as they are protected that way – so this is best for the animal’s welfare. In Europe, this is perceived differently as many scientists there feel that animals need more than just a quiet, stressphysiologically balanced existence. In Europe, scientists feel that pigs should be able to deploy natural behaviour and inclinations and they can also support this scientifically. The difference in outcome, is in fact a difference in scientific approach.”
Cost price
“In countries where cost price has always been a major issue – the Netherlands to start off with, but also in the US with a lot of large companies like Smithfield – change has been possible since customers demand for it. In the Netherlands it has been partly due to legislation, but partly has also been due to biological farming. Now 1% of pork on the market is sold through these channels. Smithfield on the other hand has not experienced any pressure from authoratitive bodies to move to group housing. But still they go, in 2017 they will be fully
converted to group housing of sows.
“Anyway, biological farming will nowhere reach 100% of the market. There will always be a situation in which a minimum of standards exists in legislation and rules. And there will be a bonus in quality label systems, depending on the economic situation. I do think that prices will rise for pig producers, but they will be able to earn this extra money on the market. Otherwise it will not be feasible.”
Remote monitoring
“Further improvements are needed, but developments in Europe will hit a ceiling, as said earlier. Sustainability will reach a level at which decisions have to be made. Progress then can mainly be found in remote monitoring: measuring automatically from a distance. What is my batch’s health status? Do the pigs drink well? Do they eat properly? In case these data can be teamed up with output parameters, I think the producer will regain a lot of liberty. And costs can be kept in balance even better.”
Source: Pig Progress Volume 25 nr 9


Pig Progress, volume 25, no.9 2009

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