I just returned from a farm animal welfare conference in Italy. The conference lasted a day and a half. The speakers ranged from dairy farmers to food retailers so there was a wide range of views and opinions on welfare and well-being and its impact on everyone from food producers to food buyers and consumers. The study of food animal welfare and wellbeing is so new that there is always new information and new ways of looking at the almost all aspects of the topic.
One researcher discussed how differently people perceived whether farm animals felt pain and how differently people varied in their assessment of the severity of that pain. Of course, everyone has his individual views on these two points but the speaker did offer some generalizations based on surveys of people who work with animals. In general, veterinarians are more likely to perceive that an animal is experiencing pain than will farmers. But female farmers tend to perceive that animals are experiencing pain more often than their male counterparts. Interestingly, the age of the animal had an impact on whether people thought it was experiencing pain. People felt that it was less likely that calves would experience pain compared to cows. There isn’t much evidence that calves feel less pain than adults but it seems to be a common perception that they do feel less pain.
Many of the codes of practice note age as a threshold for the requirements to use some sort of pain management even though there is not much research to support it. Why is it important to understand how people perceive pain in animals? People who feel that their cattle are experiencing pain are more likely to treat them for pain.
A dairy farmer from a family farm in France made several interesting points. She noted that attention to welfare and well-being can lead to increased costs. She felt there were benefits such as increased herd retention and prolonged productive life even though these benefits are very difficult to measure in scientific studies. She also made a very interesting differentiation about her role as a farmer. Many would call her a “milk producer” but she only considers herself to be a care provider for her cattle who are the real milk producers. It is a subtle but important distinction because it emphasizes the duty of care that farmers carry to help their cattle be as productive (and profitably productive) as possible.
One of the final speakers presented a new prospective on achieving good animal welfare. He was trying to determine why some health outcomes were so different in relatively similar production systems. There can a 10-time difference in the rates of lameness in different freestall barns that have very similar stalls, bedding and feeding systems. The same large differences occur in piglet mortality on different hog farms even though the management systems and housing are quite similar.
The speaker proposed that this was most probably due to differences in human factors on different farms. He speculated that it is likely possible to change some of those people factors that lead to these huge differences in animal health and well-being. That could be the next frontier in farm animal management. Farmers would be the logical people to lead this change.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.