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Summary: Animal Behavior and Well-Being Symposium: On-farm Animal Welfare: Current Considerations, Legislative Impacts, and Perspective for the Future
Dr. Caitlin Vonderohe, Postdoctoral Associate, Baylor College of Medicine

The Animal Behavior, Health and Well-Being symposium at the Midwest ASAS meeting focused on describing welfare challenges faced currently faced by livestock producers, and how animal scientists, veterinarians and welfare specialists are working to address these challenges. The first presentation, by Dr. Monique Pairis-Garcia from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine described issues in the timely on-farm euthanasia of swine and dairy cattle. Generally, euthanasia is a valuable tool that veterinarians and producers can utilize to alleviate suffering in animals when recovery is unlikely or prolonged. However, humane euthanasia is reliant on consistent, effective, and reliable techniques and adequately trained personnel. Dr. Pairis-Garcia first focused on techniques used in swine euthanasia. The American Veterinary Medical Association has multiple approved methods for euthanasia, but these methods are specific to age groups. Mature swine, such as sows and boars are particularly challenging to euthanize because the thickness of their skulls requires precise placement and sufficient penetration of a firearm or captive bolt. Dr. Pairis-Garcia presented a recent project where her group assessed two different types of captive bolt guns and different locations for placement on the skull of mature sows and boars for effective euthanasia. Most methods assessed were effective and positioning the bolt gun behind the ear or in the temporal location appear to be viable alternatives for euthanasia in mature swine. Dr. Pairis-Garcia also spoke about work she has done to determine barriers to on-farm euthanasia in dairy cattle using focus groups of dairy producers. Encouragingly, the most important factor in the decision to euthanize an animal is the welfare of that animal. Producers recognize euthanasia as a tool to alleviate suffering, but there are logistical, economic, and personal challenges in the implementation of timely on-farm euthanasia. It is important to acknowledge the burden of euthanasia, particularly in the mental health of the producer and provide sufficient support.

The next speaker, Dr. Kristina Hoback from University of California-Davis presented on the impacts and implications of Proposition 12 to American animal agriculture. Proposition 12 is a piece of legislation that was passed by referendum in California in 2018 and calls for dramatic changes in the housing requirements for veal calves, breeding sows and laying hens. These space requirements prevent the use of traditional gestation crates in sow production in the state of California. However, this regulation may be far-reaching consequences because it prevents the import of protein produced by agricultures systems that do not meet these specifications. As a result, pork production systems that are interested in selling pork to the state of California will be required to remove gestation crates from their production systems. The move from gestation crates to gestation pens or group housing creates a new set of challenges, some of which have not been well-researched, however this may create opportunities to improve welfare on a large scale in the future. Greater work needs to be done to clarify the transition from crate to pen gestation and find strategies to do so to maximize productivity and welfare, mitigate economic losses during that process.

A panel discussion followed Dr. Hobak’s presentation; Dr. Angela Baysinger from Merck Animal Health, Paul Ayres from The Maschoffs, Stephanie Wisdom from National Pork Board, and Dr. John Holt from North Carolina State University presented their perspectives on welfare challenges that face the modern swine producer. Panelists agreed that the primary issues facing welfare in swine production are labor constraints; other welfare issues depend on adequate staffing. It was also asserted that there are multiple solutions to the labor problem; National Pork Board is providing fellowships to encourage student recruitment into pork production and novel technologies may alleviate some of the challenges posed by labor constraints. For example, sensor technologies can assist with pig monitoring and animal tracking and video systems allow production companies to audit biosecurity and welfare. Additionally, virtual learning technologies have allowed the Pork Board to provide educational content directly to the producer or employee. The implementation of new technologies in the swine barn will also change skills needed in the swine labor force; the labor force of the future will need to care for pigs, be able to develop algorithms and manage and interpret large data sets. Beyond the labor force, the panel also asserted that strategies to improve animal welfare, such as gestation pens, pain mitigation, or enrichment need to be tied to improvements in economic productivity. The swine industry is an economic entity that is answerable to the consumer but is also made of producers selling a product. However, a good understanding of the physiology of good welfare and the economics of swine productivity will lead to welfare-improvement measures that also improve producer profitability. The panel concluded by discussing communication strategies to be used with stakeholders in the swine industry. Panelists agreed that short, concise tweet-like communications are the most effective way to communicate in the modern world; it is important to connect on a basic level to bridge the gap between the scientists, producers, and consumers.

The final presentation at in the Behavior, Health and Well-being symposium was from Dr. Jennifer Brown who presented a Canadian perspective on where on-farm is headed in the United States. Both the U.S. and Canada have a consumer-driven industry-led approach to animal welfare. In 2014 the Canadian Code of Practice for Care and Handling of Pigs was created, calling for group housing during gestation, enrichment during all phases of production, and pain control after castration and tail docking. When the reaction to this code was assessed at 5 years, 44% of sows were being housed in groups during gestation, very little adaptation of enrichment, but high use of pain control after castration and tail docking with veterinary support. Greater research is needed to assess the implications of moving from gestation stalls to gestation pens on sow welfare and productivity. Rushing to implement too many changes without sufficient adaptation time will risk animal welfare; both producers and animals benefit from restraint and optimization of novel systems.

An unedited recording of this sympoisum can be found on the meeting website.