Farm Animal Welfare: A Review of Standard Practices And Their Effects
Mutilating procedures are common in intensive farming systems to solve “problems,” such as farmer injuries from horns in cattle. However, many of these procedures, and other practices such as early maternal separation and overcrowding, raise concerns about animal welfare that the intensification of livestock farming brings. Efforts to improve animal welfare involve adapting the farm environment to better suit animal needs by improving management practices and housing conditions, and abandoning or developing alternatives to mutilation procedures.
Of course, animal welfare means more than just suitable physical health. Mental health is just as crucial. The assessment of well-being of farmed animals should focus on whether the farmed animal has the freedom and capacity to adapt to environmental challenges. How is the farmed animal coping with the conditions in which it lives? A farmed animal is in a good state of welfare if they are healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, have mental stimulation, and are able to express its instinctive behaviors.
There are significant procedures, management practices, and housing conditions in the intensive farming system that affect the physical and mental well-being of farmed animals. Some of them include: Adapting the animal to its environment; Mutilating procedures; Individual housing of social animals and confinement; Lighting regimens – artificial lighting; Feed and water restriction; Overcrowding/social instability; Repeated mixing; Early maternal separation; Weaning; and Barren environment
Many practices in place in intensive farming systems are used to counteract problems that emerge – often as a result of farm conditions themselves – such as tail docking in pigs in response to tail biting, or beak trimming in response to feather pecking in hens. Other procedures are used to improve the handling of animals such as dehorning of cows. Therefore, animals in industrial farming systems are forcibly adapted to meet the constraints caused by their housing conditions, as opposed to the more humane practice of the environment adapting to the animal.
Farmed animals have certain natural behaviors. In cramped cages, they are unable to perform their instinctive behaviors. Thus, as an adaptation to their environment, they start chewing on bars, biting their pen mates, etc. The farm animal uses whatever it can find to imitate the behaviors they would practice in a more natural environment. To enrich the animals’ environments, intensive farming managers must look at the animal’s natural behaviors and try to create an environment which allows these behaviors.
Mutilation is also an attempt to make the farm animal fit the conditions of the intensive farming system environment, rather than fit the system to the farmed animal. Conditions on intensive farms are such that animals can injure, or even cannibalize one another. Farmers try to suppress such behavior by cutting off body parts of farm animals. Piglets in cramped conditions chew each other’s tails off out of boredom and frustration. Instead of providing a more stimulating environment, owners simply just cut off their tails. The purpose of mutilation is to maintain the efficiency (minimize cost and maximize profits) of the intensive system. Additionally, it is usually not surgeons or veterinarians, but farmhands, who most often carry out the mutilation procedures, without anesthetic. Many farmed animals suffer intense mental and physical pain from these mutilations.
Individual housing and confinement of social animals also has an impact on their well-being. Unfortunately, housing on farms is created with the purpose of increasing productivity and reducing production costs. Intensive farming practices can adversely affect welfare by failing to provide farm animals with their basic needs, such as adequate space. These animals are kept in confined spaces, which can cause discomfort, lameness, and aggression. They are often given such little space that they cannot turn around or lie down. They also lack the freedom to express essential natural behaviors such as dust bathing in hens, grazing in cattle, forming social groups, and utilizing their maternal instincts.
Farmed animals that are separated into individual stalls or crates have no opportunity to interact with members of their own species. As a result, they show high levels of stereotypical behavior, such as biting the bars of their stalls, pacing, and unresolved aggression. Boars are housed individually and usually kept in a small confined area near the group-housed sows. The boars can see and smell the neighboring sows but cannot have any interaction with them. The improvement of housing conditions, such as developing social housing systems in which aggressive encounters are reduced to a minimum, could provide a more suitable balance between farmed animals’ needs, their ability to interact with their environment, and their environmental constraints.
Inconsistent lighting systems impair the welfare for both pigs and chickens. Pigs are kept under a large range of light-dark periods and light intensities and are sometimes kept in semidarkness in order to prevent aggressive behavior. However, these lighting inconsistencies impair explorative behavior. For chickens, a large variety of lighting systems are used, from continuous light to intermittent schedules with several successive lights-on-lights-off-periods. These lighting inconsistencies are based on the assumption that long light exposure will lead to maximal growth.
Farmed animals’ welfare is greatly limited when food and water is restricted. Restricting food is routinely applied in broiler breeders, in order to control growth and body mass. However, this restriction leads to deficiencies in learning and also leads to aggressive behavior. Chickens may undergo water restriction resulting from adverse social interactions (e.g., chickens lower in the hierarchy being denied access to a limited water supply) or illness or injury may prevent a chicken from accessing water. Farmed animals should have ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor. Feeding instruments should be at an appropriate location and height for farm animals and the feeding instruments should be checked for blockages daily.
Overcrowding in farmed animals leads to great health risks. Respiratory disease due to reduced hygiene and air quality, leg weakness due to cramped conditions, claw lesions, aggressive encounters, and hampering the establishment of a hierarchy, all compromise the wellbeing of animals in intensive farming systems. To improve welfare, farmed animals that are housed intensively should be kept in buildings with effective ventilation systems and kept out of draughts to minimize respiratory problems. Additionally, monitoring for signs of disease, stress, illness, infestation, and lameness is essential.
Separation from their original group, repeated regrouping, and re-introduction into a new group in social animals such as cows, sheep, chickens and pigs can negatively affect welfare. Social animals can recognize many of their own group members. Therefore, this repeated mixing interferes with social recognition, social hierarchies, and group structure. For example, after weaning, sows are returned to group housing. The weaned piglets are mixed with piglets from other litters, leading to aggression. However, socializing pigs early and keeping them in sibling groups can reduce aggression and stress. Additionally, another way to reduce the harmful effects of repeated mixing may be to enable the separated animals to still hear and smell the other members of their original group.
In most intensive farming systems, dairy calves are separated from their mother in the period immediately after birth, to a few days after birth, and housed individually indoors. This separation occurs far earlier than what occurs under natural conditions. Research has shown that an early social environment affects behavior, stress reactivity, and the ability to cope with different challenges. Health, weight gain, and future productivity are also improved when farm animals can spend more time with their mothers.
Pigs are usually weaned at the relatively young age of four weeks. During an extended pre-weaning period, piglets may learn from the sow about how to eat novel foods and to increase their intake of solid food. Interaction with the sow may also help reduce the development of damaging behaviors and increase play behavior after weaning. A less abrupt weaning at a higher age may improve the welfare of sows and piglets. Additionally, a two-stage weaning procedure has been developed in which a calf is prevented from drinking milk from its mother for a period before separation from the mother. Two-stage weaning may cause less stress than the usual one-stage weaning process.
The barren environments that farmed animals are provided also affect their welfare. Most pigs are kept in barren pens with a concrete and partially slatted floor. However, pigs are highly motivated to root, a behavior that cannot be executed in these types of environments. It has been found that the lack of rooting material leads to increased aggression, ear chewing, biting pen-mates, and restlessness. Depriving pigs of nest building impairs their welfare because it limits expression of their behavioral needs. Animals should be provided with an appropriate environment, including adequate shelter, fresh clean bedding, and a comfortable resting area. Farm animals should have enough space to move freely and have the company of their own kind. Owners should determine space allowance according to animal, age, and size.
In today’s intensive farming systems, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and stuffed into wire cages and metal crates. These animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests, or do anything that is natural and important. Most farm animals will not feel the warmth of the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air. The factory farming industry strives to maximize output while minimizing costs, usually by treating farm animals not as sentient creatures, but as production units.
Although animal advocates would prefer if intensive farming systems simply didn’t exist, in the time between now and their abolishment, billions of animals around the world live in such operations, and need our help. Improvement of management routines, housing conditions, and the abandonment of mutilating procedures would improve welfare for farmed animals in intensive systems. Environment must be designed to fit the animal and must ensure that animals can be themselves. The housing environments in these systems are extremely constraining in terms of the farmes animals’ freedom to interact with their environments because of restricted space, overcrowding, lack of retreat possibilities, high noise levels, and abnormal social group compositions. A good management program should provide the environment, housing, and care that permit animals to grow, mature, and maintain good health. Animals should be housed with a goal of maximizing species-specific behaviors and minimizing stress-induced behaviors, regardless of what kind of housing they live in.