What Do Farmers Know About Positive Animal Welfare?
How do we define a good life for animals? Many researchers have noted that animal welfare is more than just the reduction of pain and suffering. They believe that we should actively promote positive experiences and happiness in the lives of animals. This idea is described by the term “positive animal welfare.” Improving positive animal welfare means providing animals with opportunities to play, to make their own decisions, to engage in stimulating activities, and to have positive social relationships. For example, a farmer could supply plastic pipes for pigs to play with, or could let cows choose when and how often they get milked.
Not everyone is convinced that positive welfare indicators should be included in official recommendations for farmed animals. However, past experiences have shown that it’s very difficult to put any guidelines in place when the people who are actually working with the animals think that they’re not reasonable. Therefore, the authors of this study suggest involving farmers in the process of developing new welfare indicators. In the long run, they hope that this will help to find welfare indicators that are not only scientifically valid, but also accepted by the industry, which would hopefully make them more likely to be used in practice.
As a first step, the researchers conducted interviews with 28 Scottish farmers to find out more about their opinions on positive animal welfare. Instead of aiming for a representative sample, the team sought to have a diverse sample with farmers of cows (for milk and meat), sheep, pigs, and birds, and of various farming styles (organic vs. non-organic, free-range poultry farms, zero-grazed vs. pasture-based dairy systems, and so on). The researchers asked what the farmers believe is a good life for a farm animal, what comes to their mind when they think of positive animal welfare, and what motivates them to farm the way they do. They transcribed all answers, and then compared and reported the points that were raised by different farmers.
With regards to factors that improve or indicate positive welfare, they found that the observations and intuitions of farmers were actually quite similar to what researchers had learned from scientific experiments. For example, many farmers knew that good social relationships and some level of autonomy are important for animals’ well-being. Furthermore, most farmers agreed that play behaviors are a good indicator of welfare. They even reported that seeing their animals play or jump from joy makes them happy. However, they viewed the play behavior more as a “nice-to-have,” and not as a basic need. In practice, most farmers used productivity as a measure of welfare – true to the motto ‘as long as the cow gives milk, she must be feeling alright.’
Interestingly, study participants from different farming systems valued different aspects of positive welfare more highly than others. For example, farmers from more loosely structured farming systems valued autonomy and pointed out how they give animals the freedom to choose between staying in and going outside. Farmers from more structured farming systems valued positive social relationships and reported how they avoid negative interactions by putting dominant animals in separate groups.
Still, the majority felt that their main role was to reduce negative experiences such as stress and health issues, instead of actively promoting positive ones. The general belief among the farmers was that positive experiences, such as play and positive interaction, will arise naturally once the basic needs of animals are fulfilled. Consequently, they didn’t differentiate between ‘content’ animals (characterized by the absence of negative emotions) and ‘happy’ animals (characterized by the presence of positive emotions).
So, how is this information going to help the development of good indicators of animal welfare? Based on what they learned through the interviews, the authors suggest we consider the following points to improve the acceptance of putting positive welfare indicators in practice:
- Every farm is different — Welfare indicators should be flexible and tailored to the farming system in place, as different farmers will accept some indicators more readily than others.
- Happy animals = happy farmers — Emphasize how engaging animals to play, interact and be joyful will also bring joy and happiness to the people working on the farm.
- Animal welfare boosts productivity — Highlight the fact that improving positive animal welfare can contribute to animal productivity.
While none of these points may come as a big surprise — and indeed, may be seen as problematic by some animal advocates — it’s still important to acknowledge that this study provides scientific evidence to back up these suggestions. Guidelines and recommendations for animal welfare indicators will never be successfully put in place if farmers don’t agree with them to some extent. Hence, it’s reasonable to adapt their formulation and communication to maximize acceptance. However, we need to keep in mind that the opinions expressed in this study are not representative of all farmers in Scotland or of all farmers worldwide. Moreover, because the study was a qualitative analysis, we don’t have any statistics on which points were raised most frequently or by what type of farmers. To get the complete picture, a quantitative analysis of a larger, random study sample would be necessary. Nevertheless, the study provides a good starting point for discussion and raises awareness for the importance of getting farmers onboard for any measures directed at improving farmed animal welfare.