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The hot topic of welfare to be debated at Pig & Poultry LIVE

Welfare leads the line-up of topics at this year’s Pig & Poultry LIVE conference. Pig World investigates the issues at stake.

Following research piloted by Pig & Poultry LIVE event partner ABN, delegates from previous Pig & Poultry events voted welfare as the number one most important issue facing the industry. Angela Booth, Technical Development and Assurance Director for ABN, says welfare is especially pertinent.

“This is because it is such a huge subject, with many aspects; some current methods of production are often misinterpreted by consumers, because they don’t fit their perceived ideology of how an animal should be reared.” Angela adds “It is also highly topical given the implementation of Real Welfare in the pig industry.”

It therefore follows that the morning session of the upcoming event is dedicated to the subject of welfare with producers and experts coming together for discussion.

Real Welfare is an industry-led project funded by BPEX, explains Angela. The objective is to provide farms with a surveillance tool to demonstrate their welfare credentials and improve farm management through science-based welfare assessments, based on what the pig itself can reveal. The measures will also allow the industry to defend its welfare record and inform research and development needs.

Meryl Ward, an ABN customer who has pig units in Lincolnshire has been involved with DEFRA’s expert committee, FAWC (Farm Animal Welfare Committee); recently chairing their report ‘Farm Animal Welfare: Health and Disease. Meryl explains how the report has shown there is a need to generate discussion across the supply chain on what constitutes good welfare, and identify actions that can improve welfare and performance on a per farm basis.

Noting that welfare is often challenged by its very meaning, she says that the FAWC committee defines it as encompassing both physical and mental health. Rather than categorising welfare as separate to health, the report argues that good welfare is about minimising ill-health, both physical and mental, and maximising the opportunities to promote good physical and mental well-being. 

Meryl outlines that the report identifies important links between mental and physical well-being and disease. “For example, poor environmental conditions can elicit physiological stress responses in animals which may affect health by altering an animal’s susceptibility to pathogens,” she says.

”Conversely, positive mental states may help prevent disease and speed recovery. However, the development of animal welfare science largely outside the veterinary schools has historically led to a separation in the consideration of the physical and mental aspects of health in animals by many veterinarians and animal welfare scientists,” notes Meryl. Pointing out that many Non-Governmental Organisations that have a remit to improve animal welfare, tend to concentrate on the mental rather than physical aspects of welfare.

“The paramount issue in this debate, as I see it, is the fact that we need to firstly focus on reducing endemic disease, both infectious and non-infectious, which is a major contributor to animals suffering through physical and mental ill-health.”

Offering a solution to the issue, Meryl believes that systems which reduce the incidence of physical ill-health are key, using outcome measurements such as physical performance, post-mortem data and real welfare scores to benchmark improvement.

“We should also ensure that where the animals are performing close to their physiological limits, or kept in circumstances where their opportunity to adjust to conditions is limited, that our management systems are exemplary.

“Secondly, we need an open and honest discussion, by all involved, about our methods of production, with the welfare of the pig featuring at the heart of those discussions. The current marketing of ‘high welfare’ products based on an over-emphasis on the natural environment, inadequately reflects the full range of opportunities for positive physical and mental well-being that can provide more pigs with the opportunity of a ‘good life’.”  

On a practical basis, many of our indoor buildings need updating, and this investment will not only improve welfare, but offer further benefits. “But, none of this can be achieved with the current disjointed supply chain,” notes Meryl Ward. “Recognition by retailers of the true average costs of production and establishing joint responsibility for animal welfare are essential to ensure that opportunities to improve welfare are maximised. Farm animal welfare is too important to continue with the current divisive debate of which ‘system’ or ‘brand’ provides better welfare. 

“We need a shared vision where the supply chain, the Government and NGO’s work together to move the greatest number of animals from a ‘life worth living’ (minimum legislative standards) to a ‘good life’.

“But, it’s clearly important not to disassociate welfare from the price paid to farmers. We need to overcome being undermined by cheap imports from countries not adhering to the high animal welfare standards of UK pig producers, which depends on the supply chain supporting their chosen welfare standards across the product range.

“Pig & Poultry LIVE is an important forum for the industry to start this debate.“

Meryl feels it is important that opportunities for knowledge transfer and debate are created, as they are vital to farmers to maintain the high levels of development that have so far occurred in the UK pig industry. “This involves vets, producers, and wider industry experts engaging in the issues that ultimately help us achieve the high welfare and levels of production we aspire to. Delivery of proactive health care makes the veterinarian the key external advisor and an essential part of the farm management team,” she concludes.

Nigel Woolfenden, Partner and pig vet at Bishopton Veterinary Group explains how he views disease and its role within attaining high welfare on farm. “Disease means that the pig is not achieving its biological optimum, which due to cause and effect, may be linked to welfare issues. When the pig is not performing to its optimum there are noticeable reductions in key performance indicators, such as daily live weight gain (DLWG).” Nigel goes on to explain that these reductions in performance all have an associated cost implication for the farmer, which can lead to a cycle of loss of profit, and therefore reduced capital that is available to invest on improving welfare.

Nigel notes that the data from the Real Welfare initiative will allow for comparisons to be made across the industry on a much wider scale than ever before. "This should provide data to producers and vets allowing for benchmarking and improvement across the industry.” 

There are multiple management factors farmers must consider to create a rounded approach to pig health and disease, and therefore welfare, states Nigel. “Nutrition, alongside water is a key input into the biological system of the pig, it is a critical aspect of health and welfare,” says Nigel. “The modern pig is constantly genetically evolving, and so nutritional inputs need to keep up, to match the ever changing requirements of the pig. Any deficiencies can lead to stress in the pig and ultimately disease.” Nigel concludes by reiterating the importance for producers to work with technical experts in these various fields.  

In absolute agreement with this is Steve Jagger, ABN’s Pig Nutritionist. He notes how ABN  are continually investing to evaluate the nutrient requirements of pigs to make sure that cost effective performance is maintained as the genotypes develop. “At ABN, we work hard to ensure the pig diet is designed to make sure that all nutrients are supplied in the correct amounts for each stage of production,” comments Steve.

Sow diets are a perfect example of evolving nutritional needs, explains Steve. “Historically sow productivity was lower than today and diets with lower levels of nutrients were adequate to maintain piglet growth and sow condition. As productivity increased through improvements in prolificacy, the nutritional input became insufficient, leading to excessive condition loss of the sow.”

Steve explains that this has led to the development of the two feed system for sows - during gestation, and lactation – to meet their nutritional needs at the specific time in the production cycle. “Looking forward, ABN is investing further into research in the lactating sow diet to ensure that it continues to keep up with the evolution of the pig,” adds Steve

“Similar developments are on-going in diets for growing pigs where increasing requirements, particularly for amino acids, through higher lean tissue growth, have been matched by changes to the diet”, details Steve. 

Angela Booth of ABN says that the result of evolving challenges is that training and continued professional development must keep pace. ABN has been involved in training on certain key nutritional aspects, including working with BPEX to provide training presentations on ways to reduce feed costs. Steve Jagger notes that issues such as the effect of poor health impacting adversely on energy intake, thereby increasing the production cost through an increased feed cost, ‘is a key training message.’

Angela Booth of ABN reminds producers that the Pig & Poultry LIVE morning conference session will raise debates on many aspects of the ‘hot topic’ of welfare. “We want the event to provide an opportunity for the whole industry to discuss welfare and what we can do to affect positive change for the benefit of all,” she concludes.