Measuring and applying welfare

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Dr. Sarah Probst Miller teaches farm employees how to improve their interactions with pigs, and says that her teaching philosophy is guided by the acknowledgement that humans are predators and pigs are prey.

She thinks that being a good caregiver involves recognizing how that relationship affects pig behavior when farm employees are in pens, and she teaches them to use that interaction to find which pigs need treatment.

Sick pigs will try to hide weaknesses, and pigs in herds tend to push weak and sick pigs to the rear to offer them up rather than protect them, Dr. Probst Miller says. Caregivers trained to watch for those behaviors and signs can more quickly find pigs with various illnesses or injuries as well as better identify when treatment or euthanasia is needed.

Dr. Probst Miller, a veterinarian with Carthage Veterinary Service in Carthage, Ill., and co-owner of Progressus, an agricultural training organization, talked about the need for employee training and attention to individual swine during a presentation at the American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting March 5-8 in Phoenix. The 900-plus meeting attendees included veterinarians, students, exhibitors, and swine industry representatives, and they heard presentations on swine welfare, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, antimicrobial resistance, and implementation of science-based medicine.  

Measuring, using welfare

Anna K. Johnson, PhD, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, said swine behavior is less widely embraced as a welfare measurement tool than factors such as performance, health, and anatomy. But behavior can provide the first indication of injury or pain and supply important information for decisions on handling, transportation, and housing. 

Citing a study of induced lameness in sows, Dr. Johnson indicated that evaluating weight distribution on a sow's limbs can be used to assess pain, develop management strategies, and allow for treatment. Another study of drinking behavior and patterns could be important in the development of water-based vaccines.

The National Pork Board has worked since 2009 to develop and evaluate euthanasia methods involving gas mixtures, hypobaric chambers, targeted microwave radiation, and electricity, said Sherrie Niekamp, director of swine welfare for the organization. Niekamp also indicated that recent research indicates pigs are most likely to become unable to walk during spring and fall, and she encouraged inspection of internal temperature regulation in trailers used for shipping swine.

The NPB will also survey farms from May to November to verify participating producers' compliance with standards set under the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program. The organization estimates that 70 percent of U.S.-raised pigs are grown on farms certified through the program.

Welfare mandates possible

Bobby R. Acord, who owns Acord Consulting LLC, an organization that consults on animal and plant health issues, said national animal welfare standards could emerge if states implement standards that affect commerce. He is also a retired administrator of the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a position he held from November 2001 to March 2004.  

Acord also anticipates federal legislation on livestock welfare, and he encouraged veterinarians to lobby and point out any problems in such legislation. He said a more immediate threat could come from Europe, as he expects the European Union will soon require that imported animals products meet E.U. animal welfare standards, which he indicated would impose new restrictions on pork producers shipping products to E.U. member countries.