'Win Wins' on Animal Welfare

With household budgets being squeezed and shoppers seeking best-value food offers, will animal welfare remain a consumer concern? Investing in better animal welfare systems can be costly for farmers who, fear they may lose competiveness. Now research by SAC (Scottish Agricultural College) is showing that good farm animal welfare can add to income and, in some cases, help the environment as well.

Britain has been a leader in establishing animal welfare laws and consumers often say welfare is high on their list of priorities. However it is not always clear if that is reflected in their shopping trolleys. This worries farmers faced with extra costs that their foreign competitors may not have.

By combining economics and welfare research SAC have shown that better welfare need not be a disadvantage. In one example, providing a better diet for breeding pigs was not only better for the sow but improved piglet survival resulting in increased unit production. Another example, involving the design of poultry perches in non cage systems like free range, showed no disadvantages compared with caged systems.

The findings have been welcomed by Professor Alistair Lawrence, Head of SAC’s Animal Welfare Research said: “It can sometimes be difficult to introduce complex improvements to animal welfare while maintaining farming efficiency and competitiveness. The great advantage of the work we are doing with our economic colleagues is that they provide ways of understanding relationships between animal welfare, farming business and the economy in general. The result is that we can see where we can improve welfare without penalising farmers, to the benefit of all."

Dr Alistair Stott of SAC, Reader in Animal Health Economics, said: “Economics and science work well together like this. Through economics we explore the impacts of scientific advance on markets and trade, so that good ideas in animal welfare are not swamped by overseas competitors. In return an understanding of the science involved gives us a better understanding of market trends which improves our economic forecasts and the advice we can give farmers about investing in improved animal welfare.”

SAC researchers study a range of animal welfare issues on their animal facilities across Scotland. They are working with pigs, poultry, sheep and cattle.

The use of thermal imaging cameras and other technologies have allowed them to monitor the behaviour of piglets and sows and judge the welfare benefits of various management systems. Cattle can be harder or easier to handle depending on temperament. Researchers have investigated methods of selecting for temperament in cattle breeding programmes. Other work has looked at how new designs for cattle handling pens, based on our knowledge of the animal’s natural behaviour and its likes or dislikes can make life easier for everybody. The cattle move freely and willingly through the new system which means less stress for them and a safer environment for the humans handling them.

“The debate about animal welfare is at a cross roads” says Alistair Lawrence, “In the past we concentrated on the welfare problems of intensive farming. Now, through consumer pressure, good welfare is one of the key factors taken into account when producing meat and animal products. Our work at SAC provides a rational basis for farmers, retailers and policy makers to understand the choices they face in improving animal welfare in the real world”.

Published on 20 December 2010 in Food, health and wellbeing