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A Welfare Discussion With Dr Clover Bench- What Drives Care?

20 February 2013

Insights on the big questions in farm animal welfare such as behavioural biometrics, welfare implications on profitability and what fuels today's research are provided by Dr Clover Bench of Alberta who spoke with Meristem Land and Science.

Bench wears many hats. She runs a busy research program, teaches and mentors students and is heavily involved in industry and public outreach. Bench also has a lifetime of experience with youth 4-H Clubs and has worked to build a strong connection between university students in her faculty and youth 4-Hers in the province. What binds all of her professional activities is a focus on farm animal behaviour and welfare.

Bench is also a board member of Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) and is widely recognized in the province for her role as a strong and active communicator on farm animal welfare.

From the perspective of your program, what have you noticed about how farm animal welfare research is evolving today?

Dr. Clover Bench

Bench: My research program takes an ethological approach to the study of food animal production systems, focusing on animal behaviour. We study the behaviour of food animals in their environment in order to improve animal well-being.

Ethology research is often noted for its contributions to housing design, handling systems, environmental enrichment, and animal-based welfare guidelines. These areas of research continue to stay active amongst ethologists. However, recent technological advances are providing behaviourists with wonderful new tools that allow us to explore animal behaviour at a much more detailed level than ever before.

My research team has found that even very small behavioural fluctuations, particular to individual animals, give us clues about whether an animal is in distress or is about to come down with an illness. Referred to as behavioural biometrics, this area of research has opened a new approach to early disease detection, which has benefits for health, growth and welfare. For example, restless and fidgeting behaviour can provide us with information about bovine respiratory disease in receiver calves, and may be applied in other species as well.

What's your view on how closely welfare improvement is tied to economic benefit?

Bench: There are many examples of good welfare and economic sustainability going hand-in-hand. When animals are in a better state of welfare, operations are often more efficient and the animals are more productive. So it's truly a 'win-win.'

Sometimes is it perceived that good welfare is expensive to provide, but I believe that even small changes can make a big difference. There is a lot of evidence that a strong welfare program is good for the economic bottom line. For example, in some of our poultry research, we're working with broiler producers to find ways to mitigate foot issues related to moisture in bedded barns. Foot health is important. The challenge is a lot of factors contribute to foot health, but through multidisciplinary research collaborations, and working directly with producers, we're exploring practical strategies that promote exceptional foot health.

Today of course, another factor interwoven with welfare and economics is societal expectations. How does that fit in terms of what drives your research?

Bench: Societal expectations have a major influence on how researchers approach farm animal welfare in general. Modern society is more connected to information than ever before, and that includes where its food comes from. It is important for people to learn about how the food they eat is produced, and that requires producers to talk about and show how they care for their animals. Canada's livestock industry uses the Canadian Codes of Practice as a guide on best management practices which support good welfare. But, society as a whole may not be aware of animal welfare guidelines currently in place, including provincial and federal regulations. Equally important, there is greater interest from society for food products to be certified that they meet high standards, such as humane, local, organic, and/or food safety criteria. As such, the trend towards on-farm welfare assessments, certification programs, and audits will continue to drive research focused on animal-based measures that can be practically included in these types of assessments.

Societal expectations around specific production practices also drive change. Confinement housing is a good example of this. Based on public feedback, livestock producers may identify the need for alternative systems that meet new societal expectations. Behaviour research provides important information to producers about new systems which are both humane and practical. That's important, because sometimes what conventional wisdom thinks should be more humane, may present welfare challenges too.

What shifts do you see on the horizon?

The shift towards more animal-based measures in welfare standards is going to continue to be an important trend. While prescribed stocking densities and housing designs are helpful, the bottom line is, are the animals in a state of good welfare or not? And the best way to get that answer is by examining an animal's behaviour and identifying indicators of positive or negative welfare.

As such, I see things moving more toward approaches where there is more flexibility in how the production environment is designed or managed, so long as we are seeing the indications of normal or positive welfare from the animals in that environment.

What are the big questions today?

Five years ago, somebody asked me the question, what are the biggest welfare concerns or priorities right now? And I made a list. Just the other day a colleague asked the same thing, I went back to that list and found that my answer today is largely the same. I think many of these topics will remain for as long as it takes to fully understand and navigate our way through them. Because it's not a matter of solving these questions for good. It's a matter of always finding ways to get better.

Health. Housing. Stress. Transport. Pain. These are a few of the big ones that go across species. We have made a lot of progress in understanding how these relate to welfare and in how we can improve our approaches, and there is still a lot we can learn.

The mindset is we should never be satisfied. One of the most encouraging things I have found is how much the livestock groups I communicate with share that attitude. My involvement with AFAC is pivotal in that regard because it's an opportunity for people like myself on the research and academic side to sit at the table with a broad representation of industry and share ideas. We learn a lot from each other and we all want to find ways to improve.

We joke in research that for every question you try to answer, in the process of doing so, a project will generate 10 more questions. And you just keep following the questions and trying to answer them until you're satisfied. But really science is never satisfied. And I think the right mindset of livestock organizations as well is to never really be satisfied. It's that attitude that fosters true leadership. And that's what we need to continue to build in our livestock industries today.

February 2013

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