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Charting a New Course

Karen Schwean-Lardner’s research has led to significant changes in production practices


August 10, 2010
By Treena Hein

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When University of Saskatchewan researcher Karen Schwean-Lardner first
thought about studying poultry, she never envisioned breaking down
long-held and firmly entrenched industry misconceptions while
simultaneously finding a way to improve animal welfare and dramatically
reducing farm energy consumption – but that’s exactly what she’s
accomplished.

When University of Saskatchewan researcher Karen Schwean-Lardner first thought about studying poultry, she never envisioned breaking down long-held and firmly entrenched industry misconceptions while simultaneously finding a way to improve animal welfare and dramatically reducing farm energy consumption – but that’s exactly what she’s accomplished.

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Loves Research. PhD candidate Karen Schwean-Lardner’s love for research led to revolutionary results that have been adopted into practice by a primary breeder.

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In short, this PhD candidate has completed a revolutionary re-examination of barn lighting that’s gained international attention. While studies done long ago led poultry farmers to believe that near-constant barn lighting programs for broilers optimize profits, the work of Karen and her colleagues has shown that their use actually results in lower market weights, poorer feed efficiency, higher mortality and more culls due to leg weakness issues, compared to lighting programs with a greater proportion of darkness. These findings have already been adopted by a large poultry industry player in Canada – and Karen hopes their existence will lead to world-wide changes in production practices.  

Growing up in southern Saskatchewan on a small hog farm nurtured an early interest in animals. “Little girls weren’t allowed in the pig barn, but we always had horses and being around them did spark an interest in animal behaviour for me,” Karen says.

A single conversation
After pursuing her undergraduate degree in Animal Science at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, she moved to Melfort to work at the Federated Co-op Feedmill and then back to Saskatoon. “I had started working at the university, and one day out of the blue, I found myself part of a coffee break discussion about bird welfare,” she notes. That single conversation led to beginning a Master’s degree in 1990. “I was involved in developing, designing, building and implementing the use of an early form of enriched modified cage for laying hens,” Karen says, “and then I researched how these cages impacted the welfare and productivity of the hens.” It was her “fantastic” Master’s supervisory committee that she credits as instilling in her a love of research. ”A focus on learning is something that my then-and-current supervisor, Dr. Hank Classen, nurtures in all of his students,” she says, “and for me, it’s never faded.”

Karen is now nearing completion of her doctorate degree, with a focus on welfare and light. “Daylength in relation to welfare and productivity of broilers was something that attracted me for many reasons,” she says. “A great deal of research on this was conducted in the 70s and 80s, and much of it showed if the lights were kept on in the barn for almost the entire 24 hour cycle, broilers will eat more and hence grow faster.” However, because today’s broilers grow faster and possess extensive selection by some breeding companies against leg disease and towards various other factors – it was time to see if the story had changed. “We’ve worked very closely with Aviagen Inc., particularly Dr. Bryan Fancher (vice president of global technical operations), and although we’ve found there is no perfect lighting program that will maximize growth, meat yield and animal welfare, we have found repeatedly that near-constant lighting programs, for a variety of production and welfare reasons, should not be recommended.”

New findings
Karen adds, “While adding darkness does reduce the proportion of valuable breast muscle, we also know that the improvements in feed efficiency with exposure to darkness are substantial, and may outweigh the breast meat yield issue.” In addition, producers using less light each night gain substantial savings on their electricity bills. However, Karen concludes that “An interest in the welfare of the birds alone should require us not to use a constant or near-constant program.”

Karen’s husband Bart Lardner is an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan who studies beef cattle. She has two children. Her daughter is now a seasoned traveller who has studied biochemistry here and in Sweden, and her sports-talented son plays lacrosse, hockey and more across Canada and beyond. “I am very involved in my son’s sports activities,” Karen says. “I’ve spent a gazillion hours on the field or the rink.” She also donates time to animal welfare and poultry organizations. “I have been the Secretary Treasurer of the World Poultry Science Association (WPSA) Canada Branch for quite a few years, I represent Foundation for Animal Care in Saskatchewan by sitting on the board of directors of ‘Agriculture in the Classroom,’ and serve the Poultry Science Association through one of its award selection committees,” she says. “Other than that, I love to travel to different parts of the world, and love watching other sports – Go Riders!”

While completing her degrees, Schwean-Lardner worked in the university’s poultry science department as an animal technician and a research assistant. She currently manages the poultry teaching and research unit, as well as the university feedmill. In addition, she teaches lectures and labs to students enrolled in the College of Agriculture, and serves as a sessional lecturer at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Recently, Karen and her colleagues have added more behaviour and physiological rhythm data to their daylength studies. “These strengthen the argument that constant or near-constant light is a negative for the welfare of broilers,” she notes. The data has been used by Aviagen as the basis for their new lighting recommendations in their broiler management guides, and has been published as a technical booklet (“Lighting for Broilers”) available on the company’s website. “In terms of international interest, we’ve presented our data as a plenary talk at the World Poultry Science (German Branch) Annual meeting earlier this year, and as a webinar series from University of Edinburgh in Scotland this last spring,” Karen says. Later this fall, she and others will also present their data to the New Zealand government, which is about to update animal welfare regulations.

Rewards

“I think it’s really important to give animals the best life we can in our production systems, but I’m also very, very interested in being a part of the poultry industry – it’s a terrific business to be in,” Karen says. “Chickens are amazing creatures in and of themselves, but I also get a real charge out of working with our amazing producers. They are innovative thinkers, very concerned and interested in welfare, and it’s very rewarding to be able to provide them with ways to produce birds more humanely.”


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