Today, animal-rights activists aren't the only ones asking questions about how farm animals are raised.

The well-being of animals that produce our food has become a mainstream issue with consumers and businesses as well. This year's headlines have touted the "Free-Farmed" food label, which certifies the compassionate treatment of farm animals. McDonald's Corp., Burger King and Wendy's have efforts underway to set welfare guidelines for meat and poultry suppliers. McDonald's officials say they expect to have on-farm quidelines by year's end.

Animal science researchers also are asking questions about farm animal well-being. Purdue, Texas Tech and Texas A&M Universities, as well as the universities of Minnesota and Illinois have committed resources to supply some of the scientific support for livestock handling practices.

"Producers have always been animal welfarists," says Jeff Armstrong, head of Purdue's animal science department. "But while researchers and producers see the relationship between animal well-being and productivity, consumers may not." Armstrong, a member of national animal welfare committees for McDonald's as well as for egg and pork producers, says more research is needed in this area.

"The challenge is to scientifically evaluate our production practices to ensure that we are raising animals in humane ways," he says. "And when necessary, show producers where changes need to be made." Promoting animal well-being is a primary goal of Purdue's Food Animal Productivity and Well-being Center. Purdue scientists have joined with other groups to conduct multi-disciplinary animal well-being research.

Current research projectsntegrate discoveries in animal well-being with developments in meat quality, pre-harvest food safety, genetics and farm production systems.

Center director Paul Thompson, a bioethicist, says these efforts are unique because of the variety of perspectives that enter the discussion. " It's not just about raising a healthy animal," he says. "We are also considering quality of life and other ethical concerns." Aspects of well-being can be measured in a variety of ways, says Ed Pajor, assistant animal science professor. Scientists are developing methods to determine well-being based on animal behavior, physiology, productivity, health and other indicators.

Part of the dilemma for researchers is sorting through conflicting signs. For example, what's considered normal animal behavior may not always be nice. "Aggression, whether it's fighting for food or establishing who's 'Boss Hog' is a natural behavior, but it also causes some unpleasant conditions for animals," Pajor points out.

He says there also are trade-offs between good animal-health practices and those that may be too restrictive to the animal. "Individual stalls allow for good animal management, but limit an animal's movement and ability to socialize," Pajor says.

He is looking into group housing arrangements and larger stalls. McDonald's plans to fund some of Pajor's alternative-sow-housing research.

Rest assured that there will be more animal well-being research in the future, whether it's at Purdue or elsewhere. University of Minnesota researchers traveled to Sweden this summer and have just begun studies on deep-bed housing systems.

Here is a sample of some of the well-being research projects underway at Purdue:

  • In Pajor's studies of sows and litters, he wanted to know – if given the choice – would sows spend more or less time with their offspring, and what would be the effect on the piglets at weaning? When given the freedom to move out of their pens, most of the sows chose to spend time away from the piglets – and for long periods of time. "The piglets kept in these 'get-away' pens were better prepared for the eventual weaning and separation from the sow," he says.
  • Bill Muir, a professor of animal sciences, has developed a genetic method of " group selection" that can be used to modify behavior in animal species. Muir used the method to develop a line of kinder, gentler chickens that do not peck on each other. Muir says changing the genetic line means the chickens can keep their natural beaks, rather than have them trimmed to keep them from harming each other.

    Based at least in part on this research, the poultry industry and McDonald's have established the eventual goal of eliminating beak trimming. USDA researcher Heng-wei Cheng is partnering with Muir to understand the mechanisms involved with behavior in hens.

  • USDA researcher Susan Eicher's transportation studies in the pork industry give new meaning to the phrase "lean and mean." Her studies show that today's leaner pigs are more stressed during transport, which leads to more deaths. "Some of these problems may be handled with better breeding programs," she says. "But it may also be that we need to learn different ways of handling these particular pigs." nMaking Animal Well-being a Priority Certification of animal well-being standards may find it's way to your farm, according to John Deen, a University of Minnesota researcher who specializes in pork production systems at the university's College of Clinical and Population Sciences. He's working on developing a model that you can use to determine the economic benefits of various practices. The National Pork Board and Minnesota Pork Producers Association are funding the research.

    Pork producers understand the need and value for scientific research into animal well-being, says Dale Stevermer, chairperson of the Minnesota pork producer's production technology and research committee. "The committee views the investment of checkoff dollars into animal well-being research as an investment in our future as producers.'Deen believes that production economics and animal well-being are compatible. His research, " Animal Well-being on Minnesota Swine Farms" , began last year and is expected to be complete in 2003. The research will determine:

    • The current on-farm status of pig well-being.
    • The relationship between well-being to swine health, productivity and profitability.
    • Ways to make on-farm improvements to pig well-being.
    • Methods to measure effects of those changes.

    The research proposes to raise the level of pig well-being by:

    • Defining the relationship between pig well-being and performance, economics and health.
    • Illustrating current successful production practices.
    • Creating guidelines to efficiently address current constraints to well-being.
    • Improving public perception of swine welfare in Minnesota by publicizing these efforts.
    • Developing a list of practices that support pig well-being for potential inclusion in a Minnesota Quality Assurance program.

    While Deen's research will focus on Minnesota farms, the results can be applied to other production systems throughout the industry. Along with the University of Minnesota and Purdue University, other animal well-being research and activities are in the works, involving Texas Tech and Texas A&M universities, the University of Illinois and USDA. The National Pork Board Animal Welfare Committee has published guides on swine euthanasia and swine handling, as well as developing a swine welfare indexing system. This system will let you objectively evaluate animal welfare. It should be ready for on-farm pilot testing this year.

Beth Forbes is from Purdue University