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Scientists Seek to Improve Farm Animal Conditions

By Don Comis
June 25, 2001

You could call them the “Jane Goodalls of the farm world.” Currently limited to just a handful of practitioners, a new scientific discipline has appeared: animal ethologists who study the behavior not of gorillas or other animals in the wild, but pigs and cows on the farm.

They are similar to wildlife ethologists in that they observe animals in their natural habitats, as undisturbed as possible. This requires the use of remote cameras, binoculars and “blinds.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hiring this year of farm animal ethologist Donald C. Lay means that two of that handful of new specialists are now federal employees. Julie Morrow-Tesch was the first USDA farm animal ethologist. Both are with USDA’s chief scientific research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Lay, in West Lafayette, Ind., spends long hours watching sows with their young. He is trying to find clues to the accidental crushing behavior responsible for half of piglet deaths each year--most occurring in the first 24 hours of life. Lay is based at the ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit.

At Lubbock, Texas, hidden inside a surveillance van or in a platform on the roof of the van, Morrow-Tesch and colleagues spend a continuous 24-hour session, four times a year, parked in commercial cattle feedlots. Their observations have already identified certain problems and possible solutions. For example, they’ve found that switching the main meal for cattle from morning to evening could cut aggressive behavior in half. The mounting and scuffling of hungry cattle results in costly injuries and kicks up dust, raising air quality issues for workers. Morrow-Tesch works at the ARS Livestock Issues Research Unit.

This farm animal behavior research is part of the ARS National Program on “Animal Well-Being and Stress-Control Systems” that began in 1994. The program aims to find solutions to problems like piglet mortality through monitoring animal behavior.

Morrow-Tesch’s studies are the first characterization of Texas feedlot cattle behavior. Observing behavior is the best way to measure animal stress--especially in a commercial setting, where research techniques cannot interfere with raising cattle for market. For more information, see the feature article in the June 2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.