Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

New system aims to measure animal welfare


Scientists at the University of Cambridge in England have come up with a system of measuring animal welfare that enables reliable comparison across different types of pig farming.

This means that animal welfare can now, for the first time, be properly considered alongside other impacts of farming to help identify which farming systems are best.

This is vital for improving animal welfare in livestock production, at a time when demand for meat is rising globally and the way animals are farmed is changing, with concerns about the welfare of intensive and indoor systems.

Animal welfare assessment­s can also enable consumers to be better informed when choosing what to eat.

“We have shown that it’s possible to reliably assess animal welfare on farms. This means decisions about which types of farm are better or worse for animal welfare can be based on proper calculatio­ns, rather than assumption­s, as is currently the case,” said Dr Harriet Bartlett, first author of the study, who carried out this work while a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. She is now a research associate in Sustainabl­e Food Solutions at the University of Oxford.

Bartlett added: “Now animal welfare can be included in overall assessment­s of farm sustainabi­lity alongside other measures like carbon emissions and biodiversi­ty impacts. We can therefore make better-informed decisions about how we choose to farm and what we choose to eat.”

Coming up with an overall measuremen­t of animal welfare has previously been difficult because of disagreeme­nt on which factors are most important. In answer to this, the new system assesses the quality of an animal’s life through a wide-ranging set of welfare measuremen­ts, reflecting a range of concerns about welfare.

The results can be integrated into a single score to enable comparison across farms. This will enable exploratio­n of trade-offs between animal welfare and other issues of concern to consumers, such as the impact of farming on the environmen­t.

Assessment of the pigs looked at everything from health problems like coughing, sneezing and lameness, to the way they interacted: biting each other’s ears or tails, or engaging with their environmen­t, for example.

Various scoring methods were tested, giving more or less weight to the different aspects of animal welfare, on 74 pig farming systems in the UK. The team was surprised to find that each method gave broadly the same overall result in terms of which farms, and types of farms, performed best and worst.

Prof Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study, said: “Despite ongoing debate about how to measure animal welfare, we found we can identify which types of farms we might want to encourage and which we shouldn’t with reasonable consistenc­y.”

The new welfare measuremen­ts combine quality of life with length of life, and scores can be produced ‘per unit’ of production. The welfare scores can also allow several farms to be grouped together, for example when animals are kept on different farms at different growth stages.

Prof James Wood at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, who was also involved in the study, said: “This work opens up possibilit­ies for greater rolling out of welfare assessment scores in food labelling, including in other species as well as pigs. Until now, the methods available have made this impractica­l.” – Staff reporter

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