Welfare: Where we are now, and where we are going
Today more than ever, consumers, food retailers and regulatory agencies are seeking assurances about animal welfare standards. As a result, on-farm animal welfare assessment and audits have become part of everyday life for many of those involved in animal agriculture. For well over a decade, formal welfare assessments have been developed and conducted around the globe, and we have gained considerable experience at both the assessor and producer levels.
With so much experience behind us, we’re now able to reflect on lessons learned from existing animal welfare schemes and examine the broader aspects of these assessments: What has been successful and what can be improved upon? What innovations are at play for welfare assessments now and into the future? What are the environmental and social aspects of these audits and assessments? What are the impacts on and benefits for farmers, end-users and the animals themselves?
The Poultry Industry Council (PIC) was one of many industry sponsors of the 5th International Conference on the Assessment of Animal Welfare at Farm and Group Level (WAFL), which was held from Aug. 8-11, 2011, at the University of Guelph. Hosted by U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, the conference attracted close to 300 delegates from more than 20 countries to present and discuss the most current knowledge on assessment and auditing of welfare of animals in groups – particularly on-farm.
Thirty-six speakers, 10 keynotes and 90 poster presenters shared information, experiences and research results for all animals housed in groups. Of poultry, broilers and layers were most extensively covered, but coverage also included breeders, ducks and even caged game birds used for shooting. Below is a summary of the conference, with a focus on broiler welfare assessment. In November’s issue, you’ll hear about what is happening in the egg industry worldwide.
A myriad of welfare assurance schemes are in place across North America and the European Union: the United Kingdom. has the widely recognized “Freedom Food” label; the United States has “Certified Humane” and “Global Animal Partnership” and British Columbia has “BCSPCA Certified.” Likewise, some of the larger fast food chains and grocery retailers have their own schemes in place to ensure specified standards for the products they procure, and commodity groups have, or are developing, their own auditable animal care programs. Certain welfare assurance schemes have increased market share for welfare-added products and make it possible for producers to benefit from market opportunities. But, as with any relatively new program or process, review and revision often results in optimization.
The WAFL conference began with the acknowledgment by Dr. David Main of the University of Bristol that practical challenges have limited the widespread implementation of valuable welfare outcomes – meaning actual improvements in animal welfare after an initial assessment or audit. Although welfare assessment can identify areas needing attention, evaluation alone is often not enough, says Main. He has been working on a program in the U.K. called AssureWel, which is designed to engage producers in the assessment process, and give them the tools and information they need to take action after the assessment visit rather than being left with a report.
Focusing initially on laying hens, the project has developed inspection procedures that are feasible and scientifically robust. Using outcomes to supplement existing standards and inspection processes, the project hopes to deliver better assurance and promote genuine welfare improvement. As Canadian agriculture moves forward in developing welfare assurance protocols and responding to increasing demand for value-added products, tools such as AssureWel will prove invaluable in designing similar programs that empower producers and result in measurable results for their birds.
On a similar note, in a review of the benefits and drawbacks of on-farm welfare assessment, Dr. Isabelle Veissier of Inra, Theix, France, discussed the validity and usefulness of output indicators (e.g., feather condition, clinical and behavioural observations) versus design indicators (e.g., housing, management) for welfare assessment. Thoughts on which indicators best measure welfare have always been divided; some believe that design indicators are merely risk factors whereas output measures better reflect true welfare. For example, for thermal comfort, design measures (ambient temperature) are reliable only if repeated extensively (so feasibility is low) but behaviour of animals seems more reliable on a short visit.
Veissier’s team analyzed commonly used measures by drawing up a list of properties necessary for a measure to be considered valid for assessing welfare. They concluded that, for a welfare assessment to be robust, a mixture of output and design measures must be used, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination, but not just one or the other.
Despite now having a better understanding of which measures best reflect welfare status and how to help ensure these result in positive changes when issues are detected, Dr. Jeff Rushen of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said that it is often difficult to gain a real and accurate assessment of welfare status during a single audit. This is because many indicators (especially behavioural ones) occur irregularly over time. However, the increasing availability of low-cost technology is making automated monitoring of animal behaviour and some aspects of physiology more feasible. These have mainly been used for large animals, but translate well to poultry in some instances.
For example, automated monitoring of changes in general activity and visits to automated feeders can be used to identify animals that are becoming ill or lame, and this can be confirmed by remote recording of body temperature by infrared telemetry. Likewise, video recordings of birds in broiler houses can be analyzed and optical flow patterns have been significantly correlated with the number of birds in a house showing poor walking. This means that optical flow measures have the potential to be used as a substitute for gait scoring on commercial farms. Similarly, gait differences have been quantitatively assessed using a kinematic approach (3-D analysis of back and leg position data collected via markers on the birds and infrared camera), and correlated with visual assessment of leg health. The technique shows promise for monitoring subtle improvements in leg health following analgesic treatment or in breeding programs designed to reduce lameness.
This certainly doesn’t mean that machines will someday be a replacement for people in welfare assessment, says Rushen, but rather a practical and valuable complement.
What is the latest in broiler and broiler breeder welfare assessment?
Risk factors for poor welfare in commercial broiler flocks were studied by Dr. Arnd Bassler, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, as part of the Welfare Quality® project. This large European project focuses on integration of animal welfare in the food quality chain: from public concern to improved welfare and transparent quality. The project aims to accommodate societal concerns and market demands, to develop reliable on-farm monitoring systems, product information systems and practical species-specific strategies to improve animal welfare. Risk factors for broilers were studied on 91 traditional-intensive broiler farms in France, England, the Netehrlands, Italy and Denmark, using the Welfare Quality broiler assessment. This large explorative study found that flock age, length of dark period at 21 days of age, litter quality and type of heating system may all be relevant risk factors for lameness, foot-pad dermatitis, and diarrhea, respectively.
With foot and leg health being of high concern within the broiler industry, several studies focused on this area. In future, foot-pad lesions will be included as a welfare indicator in the Broiler Directive in the Netherlands and lesions will need to be assessed in flocks rather than at processing plants. Ingrid De Jong of Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands found that food-pad lesions are unevenly distributed throughout a broiler house, and recommends sampling at least 100 birds from at least 10 locations to obtain an accurate measure.
So that we can better understand pain associated with lameness in broilers (e.g., is it a painful condition, and if so, how painful?), analgesic treatment has been tested by Dr. Gina Caplin of the University of Bristol, as a potential tool for studying pain. Effective anti-inflammatory medications and doses have been identified: meloxicam and carprofen. Such tools may be useful for gaining a better understanding of how certain types of lameness affect welfare, and may be useful in breeding programs focused on improving leg health.
Dr. Paul Koene, Wageningen UR Livestock Research, spoke to the continuing debate on space needs of broiler chickens. Space requirements were analyzed and computed based on the space needed for six-week-old broilers to perform certain behaviours in a flock of 20,000. Density affected body space needed for drinking, ground pecking, preening, and idle behaviour. Density did not affect stretching or walking. It tended to affect dustbathing but numbers of occurrences were low because the behaviour could not be well performed. This study did not include movement or social interactions, and found that stocking density in large flocks should not exceed 16 birds/m2. Anything higher results in compression of birds and suppression of opportunities for behavioural expression.
For broiler breeders, one of the top welfare concerns is feed restriction. As parents of fast-growing broilers, broiler breeders must be feed restricted to maintain healthy body weights, maintain production levels, and prevent morbidity and mortality. Sometimes, broiler breeders show feather pecking, and it has been suggested that this problem may be a symptom of chronic hunger or a lack of dietary fibre or foraging substrate. Krysta Morrisey at the University of Guelph has been investigating whether feather pecking can be reduced via dietary manipulation and inclusion of bulking ingredients and appetite suppressants, using both daily and skip-a-day feeding. Diet did affect feather condition, and skip-a-day birds had better feather condition than daily-fed birds over time. Because feather cover differed, feather scoring may be a useful tool for producers to assess the level of hunger in broiler breeder flocks.
Finally, at some point all poultry need to be caught and transported. Dr. Karen Eilers of Wageningen University used broiler catching as a case study for trade-off between animal welfare and cost price. Improving animal welfare within livestock production seems inevitably related to extra production costs for which farmers rarely receive compensation, says Eilers. The issue of costs and price implications for farmers, retailers and consumers always arises when speaking about making welfare improvements, and Eilers’ study was conducted as a means of providing insight into the cost of welfare-improving alternatives.
Traditionally, catching broilers is done by catching crews who lift six to eight broilers upside down by their legs and place them in containers. This method results in injuries to the birds and is also a heavy, dirty job for the catchers, says Eilers. The study of alternatives included catching only two birds, upright, at a time; replacing a first catching crew with a second catching crew at half-time; using an owned catching machine, and using a hired catching machine. Machine catching resulted in higher percentages of birds dead on arrival. Catching of two birds was the most animal-friendly option, but maintaining or increasing carcass quality by using this method did not result in extra returns for the average farm. All alternatives were more costly than traditional catching and although increased costs were small, says Eilers, cumulated over total flock size they cannot be borne by farmers alone. Introduction of an alternative catching method is only possible when extra costs for farmers are paid, such as by consumers or retailers.
In all, poultry welfare assessment is a multifaceted and complex area, involving many approaches from the detailed study of a single biological process to wide-reaching multidimensional economic analyses. By pooling experiences and knowledge and coming together to discuss challenges and successes, we can move forward confidently as assessments are developed and carried out in Canada, knowing we are using the most promising methods to ensure the best welfare for the birds in our care whose products are on our tables.