Farm animal practices require thoughtfulness, care

April 14, 2011 by Jake Geis

How do you know if a pig is sad? How do you know if a cow is not content? Since we can't simply ask an animal how it feels, farmers and ranchers rely on empirical data to measure animal welfare. This data is especially important when considering stressful procedures in order decide what provides the greatest welfare for and the animal.

The World Organization for Animal Health defines animal welfare as, "how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives." It considers an animal to be in a proper state of welfare if it is fed, safe, comfortable, healthy and able to express innate behavior as indicated by scientific evidence. That scientific evidence is the key to measuring animal welfare. Many animal rights organizations base their beliefs solely off of a preconceived notion of what animals "like" without any way of proving their notions are true.

In contrast, animal scientists use a number of indicators to measure animal welfare. At the most basic level is simple observation of animal behavior, such as how often the animals stand, drink or feed, as well as noting abnormal behaviors. These behaviors are recorded and if changes are observed during a new treatment or management technique, changes that lead the animals to do normal behaviors less are considered to be harmful towards their welfare. For example, one way observational data is taken is by counting the number of times calves vocalize when being weaned. The less vocalization, the less stressful the event is on the calves. While this method of measurement is a start, it is prone to observer error.

A more technical method animal scientists use to measure stress in animals is the measurement of circulating hormones and other body compounds, such as glucocorticoids. A simple way of measuring these stress-related hormones is by taking a fecal sample at several different times in order to compare the levels of the hormones in the animal. The higher the hormone levels, the more stress the animal is under.

A simple, but effective way to obtain animal welfare data is through production data. Numbers like the amount of weight an animal gains per day (average daily gain), how efficiently it utilizes its feed (feed efficiency) and reproductive data such as the number of offspring raised per adult female (weaning rate) are taken in every research study and by farmers and ranchers. With increasing animal welfare, these rates become more favorable because an comfortable animal that is comfortable will gain weight faster and breed back easier.

While production data is a good indicator of animal welfare, it also shows that livestock producers have a vested monetary interest in animal welfare as well as a moral obligation. By embracing new welfare practices, farmers and ranchers can increase their profitability, which will allow them to continue to work with the animals they love.

One way animal welfare has been studied and improved has been through work done on low stress cattle handling. The idea behind low-stress handling is to move cattle in ways that reflect their natural reactions when confronted by humans so they move where the human wants them too. Also, low-stress handling principles are integrated into the design of cattle handling facilities so cattle naturally move through the facilities the way the cattle handler wants them to go.

This handling technique has been proven to be effective by several scientific studies, but particularly through work done by Temple Grandin, an animal science professor from Colorado State. In these studies, scientists measured everything from the cortisol levels to the amount of vocalization of the animals during handling. The combination of these multiple techniques of measuring animal welfare gave the researchers certainty the changes they administered were effective and beneficial.

Measuring animal welfare is also helpful for more contentious issues. For example, some animal rights groups are opposed to dehorning cattle, which is a procedure where the horns of young cattle are removed. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, dehorning is a highly beneficial procedure that increases the welfare of the entire herd because horns can hurt other cattle. This is evidenced through less bruising of carcasses, udder and eye injuries, and fewer aggressive behaviors by cattle. Also, dehorned cattle were fatter than non-dehorned cattle. So while the process of removing the horns can be traumatic, the long term effects of dehorning are highly beneficial for the animal.

In all, it is important when looking at claims about animal welfare to see if they have been proven scientifically or if it is a group propagating their unproven opinions. If focusing on actual facts when looking to improve animal welfare, we can improve the quality of life for farm animals in this country.

Jake Geis is a second year veterinary student. Reach him at To access the original article, which first appeared in the Daily Nebraskan, click here.