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Features for the Farm 112313

News from the West Central Research and Outreach Center

Research on the welfare of animals

Over the course of the last several years, animal welfare has become more and more of a hot topic amongst producers, animal industry professionals and consumers. Not only are there questions on how animals are handled and managed, but also how animals react to their environments. Understanding animal welfare, or how an animal interacts with its surroundings, has been the work of Dr. Yuzhi Li for the last 10 years. Li is an associate professor of swine behavior at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris. She has been studying the link between body functions and behavior as indicators of animal welfare in animals, pigs in particular.

For an animal, poor welfare could result from malnutrition, physical discomfort brought on by pain, injury, disease, or being too hot or too cold, overcrowded or mixed with unfamiliar counterparts. When an animal is placed under one of these circumstances, they will likely exhibit both physiological and behavioral changes. Sows (female pigs), for example, tend to show more aggression toward new pen-mates when the new sows are introduced to the group. This behavior, paired with an increase in cortisol (a stress hormone) in their saliva, indicates that the sows are stressed and their welfare is compromised. Sows develop a natural hierarchy of power, and act out their aggression toward the lower ranking sows; a stressful environment, indeed.

When pigs are feeling cold, their behavior shows us this because pigs will lay on their stomachs, with their legs pulled under, and huddle close to neighboring pigs in an effort to maintain body temperature. Certainly this applies to many animals, not just pigs. This is just one example of how an animal will naturally cope with its environment.

Animal welfare follows the principles of:

1. Good feeding (provided with food and water)

2. Good housing (comfort, freedom from harsh environments)

3. Good health (absence of injury, pain and disease)

4. Appropriate behavior (expression of normal behavior)

The best way to ensure a healthy and welfare-friendly environment for an animal is to follow and maintain these principles (EU Welfare Quality, 2009).

The research of Dr. Lee Johnston, professor of swine nutrition at the WCROC, has focused on the nutritional needs of a healthy herd. In his latest project relating to swine nutrition, Johnston is finding that a sow’s diet can have an effect on behavior and overall welfare. For example, sows that ate a diet containing high levels of dried distillers grains with solubles(DDGS) spent more time resting and less time engaging in useless behaviors as compared to sows that ate a diet of corn and soybean meal with no DDGS. DDGS is the mash that is left over when ethanol is made from corn.

Knowing how to best meet the welfare needs of an animal has long been researched, debated and talked about: what is the best housing system, which type of diet is better, or how can we better understand animal behavior. Li, along with Johnston, have been engaged in this discussion and are incorporating these concerns into their research.,Animal welfare can easily become an emotional issue, which is why it’s important to consider research findings when making conclusions or judgments on how animals are cared for. For more information on animal welfare, or to learn more on the swine research conducted at the WCROC, please see or