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Animal Ethics, Agriculture, and Food Production

Researchers Look for Ways to Improve Food Animal Quality of Life

Is it possible that how we raise farm animals can influence the quality of their products? Can improving the quality of life for these animals improve farm sustainability and profits? A group of scientists aims to find out.

Researchers from the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) Livestock Behavior Research Unit (LBRU) in West Lafayette, IN, are examining how food animals are raised, particularly cattle, swine, and poultry.

"Confidence in food animal agricultural practices is critical," said Jessica Pempek, animal scientist at LBRU. "The goal of this project is to further scientific understanding of food animal welfare."

To reach their goal, LBRU researchers focus on three priority areas under modern farming conditions: pain or distress, animal health and productivity, and harmful effects caused by climate variability.

Modern farming refers to the use of technology to improve agricultural practices. Examples include the dairy industry's use of automated milk feeders for young calves and using monitors to track an animal's movements. In both cases, data can note changes in behavior and help predict the onset of disease. Early detection means a sick animal can receive treatment sooner and reduce suffering, production losses, and the chance of spreading the illness. This could save treatment-related expenses and improve animal welfare.

ARS researchers are finding ways to ensure that young calves, like this little Jersey bull, have a greater quality of life. (Jessica Pempek, D5120-1)

Several studies aim to lessen climate change-induced heat stress and its impact on animals. To do so, they examine approaches that include management practices, technologies to cool the animals, nutritional supplements to reduce the effects of heat stress, and breeding livestock that are more resilient to heat stress.

According to Jay S. Johnson, supervisory research animal scientist at LBRU, dairy farms are particularly affected by increasing global temperatures and heat waves due to climate change. Heat stress is especially hard on lactating cows because milk production increases their metabolism. To help cool themselves, the cows eat less and that means they produce less milk.

"In addition," he said, "exposing pregnant cows to heat stress can have wide-ranging negative effects on the performance and health outcomes of their calves. Similar effects are observed in other meat animals, including beef cattle, swine, and poultry."

Animal welfare science is a relatively young field that combines several scientific disciplines. One discipline that is closely associated with animal welfare is ethology, the study of animal behavior. According to Pempek, animal behavior can help humans understand how an animal controls, interacts with, or responds to its environment.

"We will continue to optimize animal welfare to maintain stakeholder confidence in animal agricultural practices," Pempek said. "There is an ethical and moral obligation to ensure that animals under human care have a good quality of life, regardless of if they are used for companionship or food production." — by Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications

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