Separating welfare facts from fiction

Separating welfare facts from fiction

It has become a confusing market for customers to decipher which technologies offer the best welfare-friendly solutions for their animals. How do you separate fact from fiction when choosing new technologies?

By Steve Evans

New incubator and hatchery technologies are being introduced to the marketplace at increasing speed, each competing with the next for customer attention. It has become a confusing market for customers – many of whom may have spent ten years or more with the previous brand of machine – to decipher which technologies represent the most meaning to them as they seek to upgrade. After all, the hatchery business is very simply about producing as many ‘A’ grade day-olds, be they chickens, turkeys, ducks or geese, from their fertile egg stock. How has it become so complex?

Choosing technologies relevant to animal welfare

These days one of the key marketing tools to create a point of difference between incubator manufacturers is animal welfare. And animal welfare in the hatchery is indeed of utmost importance if healthy, viable day-olds are to be sold. So how then are we to understand which technologies truly support the welfare of our day-olds and by virtue of this clarity see through the technologies that are little more than just someone’s imagination creating an idea that is undoubtedly new and different but nothing more? How do we sift through the abundance of technologies on offer to find the one that is in fact relevant to animal welfare? In my opinion it is being able to use nature as a reference that is key.


Dubious advice

Up until recently my wife and I owned and operated a Free Range Enterprise on the beautiful Central Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. Upon our property we ran a mixed enterprise of beef cattle, free range pigs and free range poultry. Our business sold our various products to restaurants mostly in Sydney whose chefs/owners were interested in provenance. Our mission statement was to produce slow grown, flavoursome meat from animals that had been able to express their natural behaviours, be those grazing lush pasture, scratching in the dirt for grubs or simply dozing in the sunshine.

I particularly recall the time when we were establishing our free range piggery when pig industry experts advised us that without the use of farrowing crates we would be unable to raise pigs. This, they explained, was because the mothers were prone to rolling onto and squashing their new-born young. Therefore, it was explained to us, farrowing crates were an imperative piece of animal welfare equipment without the inclusion of which the piglets could not be protected from their mothers. Indeed so well marketed were these farrowing crates that even the chefs who were our prospective customers - and who quite honestly knew not the first thing about farming - had heard of them and became self-appointed experts on the stupidity of sows when it came to rolling on their young. Some even expressed concern in purchasing pork from a farm that didn’t use farrowing crates on the grounds that the piglets were at risk of being killed in a horrific manner.

Right from the start I was dubious of this advice. Farrowing crates were relatively new technology and therefore if the advice was accurate then the species would have ceased to exist long before. I also had no intention of using a farrowing crate which is an apparatus that restricts the sow to standing in one position, unable to turn around or react to her surroundings. I had no intention of compromising the farm mission statement. 

Deciphering welfare fact from fiction

We went ahead and built farrowing paddocks equipped with ‘A’ frame shelters. The sows could move about freely, choose a shelter and build a nest. It was nevertheless with considerable anxiety that we watched our first few sows give birth wondering if all offspring would be lost and it would be revealed that we had made a catastrophic blunder.

Not surprisingly the advice proved completely erroneous. Lo and behold! sows make fantastic mothers. With the ability to move freely they attend to their piglets with an amazing degree of tenderness. There are, of course occasional losses – but these occur with the use of farrowing crates as well. The losses are entirely due to accidents rather than the sow being a dumb entity that requires that she be contained.

The experience served to teach me the following lesson – that one must be prepared to use nature as a reference when deciphering fact from industry fiction. In this particular case, industry experts put forward the use of farrowing crates as essential for animal welfare. It was said that without the use of crates the piglets would die. This proved false; and not surprisingly when you consider that pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years. The truth of the matter was that farrowing crates were designed for the intensive industry where large numbers of sows...

Do you already have an account? Log in here