Researchers at a handful of universities are taking a hard look at on-farm livestock and poultry production practices to measure the impact on the animal. (See "In Pursuit of Animal Well-being" in the November issue of Pork.) Among the researchers looking at the pork sector is John Deen at the University of Minnesota's College of Clinical and Population Sciences, who specializes in pork production systems.

Future practices to enhance pig well-being will have to be producer and industry driven, Deen points out. And he agrees that any recommendations will need to be based on sound science, as well as the economics and profitability of the practice. He points to efforts outside of the industry that attempt to dictate production practices. Too often, he says, they fail to consider costs and unintended affects.

For example, discontinuing antibiotic use in nursery pigs may actually lower pig well-being because of a resulting decline in the animal's health and increase production costs because of lower productivity and increased deaths.

Deen and fellow researchers have conducted a survey of production practices found on Minnesota pork operations. The survey will show researchers what are the typical challenges to pig well-being and the problems that producers face in meeting those challenges. Data collection includes pig mortality (death) and morbidity (disease) rates, training of workers who treat or euthanize pigs, and the facility's design contribution to animal injury and comfort.

In a preliminary review of the survey, Deen identified that pig well-being concerns are gestation stalls, euthanasia and failure to manage or control disease.

Survey findings show that standard size gestation stalls are inadequate for some of today's larger sows. Consequently, you need to consider providing larger stalls, pens or develop a gestation housing program that accommodates sow size. Deen says this doesn't mean total renovations, but it does mean finding ways to retrofit stalls to meet an individual animal's needs. " One size does not fit all,' he says.

Deen recognizes the controversy that a discussion about gestation stalls creates within the industry. That's because some people feel that once the industry agrees to one modification, it will trigger continuing demands for more costly and greater changes.

" There is a fear by some within the industry that to change at all is the beginning of a slippery slope,' he notes. " Conversely, however, it is important to ensure that a housing method (such as gestation stalls) under such close scrutiny is managed very well." Another finding that the survey uncovered is the industry's widespread failure to establish aggressive on-farm euthanasia programs. He finds that some producers wait too long before euthanizing an animal. Delays often result from hope that the animal's health will improve. Other reasons involve the fact that euthanizing an animal is an unpalatable job, or that employees who are responsible for euthanization are unavailable. Deen also has found that training workers on how and when to euthanize an animal is inadequate on most farms.

The survey also measures animal illness, injury and death loss. Again, based on preliminary data, illness and death rates vary greatly between farms. While that's nothing new, it does suggest there are animal well-being issues to be addressed within this area. Deen's recommendations on the topic include the need to find new disease control methods or to improve implementation of disease control measures that already exist.

Survey participants also say they rely on their veterinarians for solutions to their on-farm animal health problems.

Deen finds the animal well-being status within an operation is not related to its size. Instead, a more likely influencing factor is the workers' knowledge and the resources available to provide sufficient animal care.

" Knowledge to provide proper care is not size specific at all,' he contends. " A lack of animal well-being is often due to a caregiver's ignorance.'On-farm animal well-being is a topic that will continue to prompt challenging discussions and promote new considerations within the industry for many years ahead. Certainly Deen's survey will continue to reveal insights and information as researchers dig deeper into the data. Likewise new research projects will provide additional answers that the industry may find worth considering.