Are there Holes in Animal Care and Well-being Programs?
Posted: October 13, 2008
Over the past few years much has been written, talked about, or broadcast on TV regarding the care or at times the lack thereof of animals raised in production agriculture. This has caused many of us who have been working in animal agriculture for years, to stop and look around and try to understand what has caused some of the fuss.
If you look at data over the past 50 years it is abundantly clear that animal agriculture has greatly increased in efficiency. In the United States we have an abundance of wholesome meat, milk, eggs and other products from our animal agricultural industry. The efficiency of these industries allows us to enjoy that abundance while devoting fewer acres to agriculture, we can utilize less animals, and do so with a much smaller number of people employed directly in animal production. In the United States much of the animal care paradigm in production medicine has been focused on ensuring that the basics of animal needs were met. These animal needs included; sound nutrition, plenty of fresh water and air, a comfortable resting area, and freedom from disease and injury. Food production veterinarians, animal scientists, and producers have devoted much or all of their careers to ensuring that these basics were met or exceeded.
In conjunction to these animal needs, it was equally important to provide agricultural products in the most cost effective and environmentally sound manner. For most of us, animal production data were judged to be objective criteria that we were doing a good job. There is no doubt that animal production improves when diet, health, and the environment are as close to ideal as possible. We could measure and document that animals were healthy; pounds of milk per day increased, feed efficiency and rates of gain improved, and major diseases were controlled. Several studies and policy shifts started primarily in Europe have begun to challenge some of the aspects of the animal production paradigms in the US.
In the United States we have focused most heavily on hard core biological and financial data as indicators of how well we were doing in our animal agriculture enterprises. In Europe following the Brambell Committee Report in 1965 other animal well-being criteria, such as normal behavior and stress, began to be judged as equally important. Normal behavior and freedom from stress are much harder parameters to measure and quantify according to cost effectiveness in a production system.
Taking a step back and looking at how we manage the basic needs and health of animals under our care can help us look for any holes in our animal well-being programs or find animal groups that might receive marginal attention. With economic challenges on most farms today, it is easy to see how animals with minimal economic value might slip through the cracks. It is very important that all animals under our watch receive adequate care irregardless of their economic value. A few animals along the fringe of the economic spectrum might not always get the extra care they need.
The following are animal groups that might be overlooked on some farms. Small bull calves need adequate colostrum even if they are only going to be on the farm for a few days. Lame cows, injured or recovering cattle need special attention not just to the basics but when appropriate they also need attention to pain and discomfort. Cows that have lost significant weight need time and space to be rehabilitated. Heifers and dry cows who aren't putting milk in the tank, still need a clean comfortable environment and a well balanced diet. It is usually profitable to focus the greatest effort on the animals “paying the bills”. That fact can not be overlooked. However, producers and all animal care givers while working to sustain the economic vitality of the farm, need to remember that every animal under our watch, no matter their economic value, requires more than just some food, water, and getting by. It is time for producers, animal scientists, and veterinarians to all take some hard looks around our farms and make sure no holes exist in our animal well-being programs.
For a good book to explore these issues in animal agriculture, I would refer readers to: The Well-Being of Farm Animals, Challenges and Solutions by G. John Benson and Bernard E. Rollin, Blackwell Publishing, Ames, Iowa 50014, USA, 2004
David R. Wolfgang, Extension Veterinarian, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences