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Scientists work to make livestock happier—even if it must die

Dec. 8, 2010
Courtesy of CSIRO
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have em­barked on a new re­search pro­gram aimed at en­sur­ing farm an­i­mals live more hap­pi­ly—e­ven if they’re doomed to be killed and eat­en.

The aim is to en­hance an­i­mal well-be­ing when pos­si­ble, re­search­ers say, but the ben­e­fits are al­so meant to be redi­rected back to hu­mans. More con­tent an­i­mals are more pro­duc­tive, some sci­en­tists ar­gue: even in death, for ex­am­ple, hap­pi­er cows pro­duce tastier meat.

CSIRO Live­stock Ind­ust­ries sci­entist Ca­ro­line Lee mon­i­tors cat­tle at Ar­mi­dale, New South Wales, Aus­tra­lia. (CSIRO)


“With in­creased pub­lic con­cern about the wel­fare of an­i­mals, and con­sumers seek­ing ‘an­i­mal wel­fare-friendly’ prod­ucts, Aus­trali­a’s live­stock in­dus­tries are fo­cused on im­prov­ing farm­ing prac­tices to meet chang­ing ex­pecta­t­ions,” said re­searcher Car­o­line Lee of Aus­trali­a’s na­tional sci­ence agen­cy, the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tif­ic and In­dus­t­ri­al Re­search Or­ga­ni­sa­t­ion.

Lee and oth­ers at the agen­cy’s Live­stock In­dustries di­vi­sion are stu­dy­ing “sci­en­tific” meth­ods of as­sess­ing an­i­mals’ emo­tion­al state that go be­yond tra­di­tion­al, and lim­it­ed, tech­niques.

In a study pub­lished in the Sept. 10 on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­choneu­roen­do­crin­ol­ogy, for in­stance, Lee and col­leagues re­ported on a tech­nique for as­sess­ing “pes­simistic” out­look in sheep. The an­i­mals were trained to ex­pect that ap­proach­ing a buck­et would lead ei­ther to a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive event—a food re­ward, or the ap­pear­ance of a sheep dog—de­pend­ing on the buck­et’s loca­t­ion. Lat­er, buck­ets were placed in add­ition­al, “am­big­u­ous” loca­t­ions; the sheep were as­sessed re­gard­ing their con­fi­dence in ap­proach­ing the buck­et.

“The chal­lenge is to gain in­sights – in a sci­en­tif­ic­ally rig­or­ous way – in­to how an­i­mals’ minds work,” Lee said. Tra­di­tion­al meth­ods largely fo­cus on quan­ti­fy­ing bi­o­log­i­cal in­di­ca­tors of stress, she not­ed – for ex­am­ple, via blood tests that show changes in an­i­mals’ phys­i­ol­o­gy or im­mune sys­tems. Stud­ies of an­i­mal be­hav­iour have al­so been used to in­di­cate ob­vi­ous emo­tion­al states such as pain or dis­com­fort, or pref­er­ences for dif­fer­ent foods. But all of these stud­ies pro­vide rel­a­tively lim­it­ed in­forma­t­ion, Lee ar­gued.

“Un­til now the ma­jor gap in our abil­ity to as­sess an­i­mal wel­fare has been our ca­pacity to un­der­stand the emo­tion­al states of an­i­mals in dif­fer­ent farm­ing situa­t­ions, such as in in­ten­sive fin­ish­ing sys­tems or dur­ing droughts,” said Lee. Some of her re­search has al­so ex­am­ined sheeps’ re­sponses to, and po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives to, mulesing—a prac­tice in which a piece of flesh is cut off the rump to pre­vent deadly mag­got in­festa­t­ions.

It’s “in­terna­t­ionally rec­og­nised that we must quanti­fy not only the bi­o­log­i­cal cost but al­so the emo­tion­al cost of an­i­mals used for pro­duc­tion of food and fi­bre,” Lee said. “This re­quires new meth­ods to bench­mark the wel­fare of an­i­mals in their on-farm en­vi­ron­ment.” 

But for sci­en­tists in­volved in the re­search, the wel­fare of the an­i­mals them­selves is a mo­tiva­t­ion only up to a point.

Sci­ent­ist Drewe Fer­gu­son of the Live­stock In­dustries di­vi­sion told the Bris­bane, Australia-based Cour­i­er Mail news­pa­per that meat from un­hap­py cows is “dark, firm and dry in ap­pear­ance, with a tough tex­ture,’’ be­cause of low ac­id­ity lev­els. “It al­so has a re­duced shelf life be­cause of the bac­te­ri­al growth,’’ he added.


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Scientists have embarked on a new research program aimed at ensuring farm animals live more happily—even if they’re doomed to be killed and eaten. The aim is to enhance animal well-being when possible, researchers say, but the benefits are also meant to be redirected back to humans. More content animals are more productive, some scientists argue: even in death, for example, happier cows produce tastier meat. “With increased public concern about the welfare of animals, and consumers seeking ‘animal welfare-friendly’ products, Australia’s livestock industries are focused on improving farming practices to meet changing expectations,” said researcher Caroline Lee Scientists of Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Lee and other scientists at the agency’s Livestock Industries division are studying “scientific” methods of assessing animals’ emotional state that go beyond the traditional, and limited, techniques. In a study published in the Sept. 10 online issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, for instance, Lee and colleagues reported on a technique for assessing “pessimistic” outlook in sheep. The animals were trained to expect that approaching a bucket would lead either to a positive or negative event depending on its location—a food reward, or the appearance of a sheep dog. Later, buckets were placed in ambiguous locations, and the sheep were assessed regarding their confidence in approaching the bucket. “The challenge is to gain insights – in a scientifically rigorous way – into how animals’ minds work,” Lee said. Traditional methods largely focus on quantifying biological indicators of stress, she noted – for example, via blood tests that show changes in animals’ physiology or immune systems. Studies of animal behaviour have also been used to indicate obvious emotional states such as pain or discomfort, or preferences for different foods. But all of these studies provide relatively limited information, Lee argued. “Until now the major gap in our ability to assess animal welfare has been our capacity to understand the emotional states of animals in different farming situations, such as in intensive finishing systems or during droughts,” said Lee. Some of her research has also examined sheeps’ responses to, and potential alternatives to, mulesing—a practice in which a piece of flesh is cut off the rump to prevent deadly maggot infestations. It’s “internationally recognised that we must quantify not only the biological cost but also the emotional cost of animals used for production of food and fibre,” Lee said. “This requires new methods to benchmark the welfare of animals in their on-farm environment.” But for scientists involved in the research, the welfare of the animals themselves is a motivation only up to a point. Scientist Drewe Ferguson of the Livestock Industries division told the Brisbane, Australia-based Courier Mail newspaper that meat from unhappy cows is “dark, firm and dry in appearance, with a tough texture,’’ because of low acidity levels. “It also has a reduced shelf life because of the bacterial growth.’’