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'Objectively' measuring animal welfare

By The Netherlands' national research council - Analysing the well-being of farm animals such as pigs is no longer merely a matter of opinion. Researchers at the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering (IMAG), one of the research institutes of Wageningen University and Research Centre, have succeeded in producing a model allowing them to give a score to the well-being of pigs.
calendar icon 8 June 2001
clock icon 1 minute read
The new model calculates a score for the well-being of the animals by inputting data on their accommodation, such as the space they have and the size of the group, and on the way they are managed. The researchers were trying to find the best way to determine the well-being of the animals by giving a proper scientific score. They based their analysis on the satisfaction or frustration of the animals' biological needs, such as for food and water, social contact between individuals, peace and quiet in the shed, freedom of movement and bodily care (for example whether the animals were able to wallow in mud), and the opportunities they had to rummage and root around. The better these provisions and conditions, the higher the score on a well-being scale from 0 to 10.

The researchers then distinguished between various aspects of the housing that influence the well-being of the animals. They looked at such things as the need for the animals to be able to move, isolating the factor 'space per sty', because a lack of space can lead to increased aggression in pigs, which in nature range over large areas. Using this kind of scientific insight allowed the researchers to assign a weighting to the attributes for well-being in the model.

In order to compare the scientifically determined scores with the experience of animal welfare experts, the team had the experts assign a score to a number of management and accommodation systems for pregnant sows. The scores assigned were as follows: tethered sows: 0.0; individual feeding cubicles: 0.7; groups with feeding cubicles: 3.0; groups with graduated supply of feed in a trough: 3.7; concentrated feed stations: 3.0; fields with huts: 7.1; and family sties: 8.3.

A comparison of the scores given by the experts and those assigned by the model showed that the model based on separate well-being scores is just as good at evaluating the welfare of the animals as the average expert.

The well-being model can be used to evaluate existing pig farms, for example in determining policy and in making ethical decisions regarding animal welfare. It can also be used to design new accommodation and management systems. The results of the project imply that to achieve genuine improvements in animal welfare, substantial improvements in their accommodation and management will be necessary.

The project is part of NWO's Priority Programme dealing with the well-being of animals used in food production. The study was supervised by the Netherlands Technology Foundation (STW) and partly financed by the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals.

Further information:
Marc Bracke (Wageningen University and Research Centre, IMAG)
T +31-320-238 205
or Prof. Jos Metz (IMAG)
T +31-317-476 561
or Prof. Berry Spruijt (UU)
T +31-317-484 595

Source: The Netherlands' national research council