Animal welfare key to pork producers’ continuous improvement

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Animal well-being is not a new concept and has long been a priority on hog farms. “It’s one of the ethical principles within the industry’s We Care initiative,” said Sherry Webb, swine-welfare director for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV). “It focuses on everything from when the pig is born to when it’s transported from the farm, and working toward continuous improvement.”

Part of the reality — and certainly a challenge when it comes to animal-welfare demands from the outside — is that one size does not fit all on hog farms. In other words, there are pros and cons to every production practice, housing method or animal-handling approach.

“It boils down to the daily care that the pigs receive,” Webb told Pig Health Today. “So, the key is making sure the caretakers are trained, regardless of the system they’re working in, to provide the best care for the animals under their supervision.”

Hot-button issues

While activists continue to pressure for change in such areas as male-pig castration, pain mitigation and sow housing, producers and veterinarians will respond first and foremost with what’s best for the pigs in their care, Webb added.

For example, there is a lot of emphasis on male-pig castration, particularly on a global scale as many European countries require the process to include pain mitigation or have eliminated the practice altogether.

“We know that castration is a painful procedure for piglets, so we’re looking at ways to replace the procedure, refine the procedure or reduce the pain associated with the procedure,” Webb said. “Within those three areas, there are a few options available today or possible options coming down the pipeline in the future.”

She noted that immunocastration is readily available around the globe and in the US today. “It’s been shown to be effective, it’s FDA approved, but it doesn’t necessarily work within all marketplaces,” Webb noted.  “Producers should work with their veterinarian to assess that option.”

Another option, although less feasible due to the US hog industry’s organizational structure, is to keep male pigs intact and market at a significantly lighter market weight (200 pounds versus 280 pounds) as is the practice in some countries. In theory, pigs would go to market before boar taint develops. But not all pigs mature at the same rate and that creates a product-quality risk. Perhaps more importantly, this would reduce the amount of meat produced per pig.

“It also would impact the overall sustainability footprints and inefficiencies for the industry as a whole,” she added.

On a very long-term tract is the prospect of genetic selection or gene-edited pigs that would eliminate the risk of boar taint for hogs headed to market.

Relieving pain

Pain mitigation is a challenge associated with castration and tail docking, but effective options are lacking. Research on general anesthetics have shown that they are not very effective, as well as difficult to implement on the farm, Webb said. Local anesthetics have been tested and the verdict is still out, but none are approved in the US for use on pigs.

Webb added that more work is needed to identify products that are indeed effective, and if they are cost-effective, how they might be implemented on the farm.

Tail docking could become a hot-button issue, but it’s a bit different from castration. For example, it’s done to prevent further pain and damage to a victim pig. “There are still a lot of questions about why pigs perform that behavior, and there isn’t a single evidential cause,” Webb said. “There’s a lot of ongoing scientific work to try to understand why it occurs.”

Gestation-sow housing continues to generate debate as more of the US industry is looking at incorporating group systems. Webb shared AASV’s position statement on gestation-sow housing, which says that regardless of the housing system, key elements — feed, water, daily care and observations for each individual sow — must be met.

Future industry direction

Because animal welfare and health/disease are closely related, the veterinarian plays a vital role in providing advice and sharing information to enhance animal care, Webb pointed out. For both veterinarians and producers, science remains the dominating factor when it comes to making on-farm production changes.

In 2017, at her previous post at the National Pork Board, Webb oversaw the first-ever international swine-welfare symposium. “It was an opportunity for producers, veterinarians and academics from around the world to come together and learn what’s new and relevant scientifically on animal welfare,” she said. “Also, to better understand consumers and their expectations for animal welfare, as well as hear first-hand experiences from producers and how they’re implementing new and novel animal-care practices to promote animal welfare.

“It’s another extension of that commitment to continuous improvement.”

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