In the livestock business, the changing requirements of customers have had a significant impact on how producers manage livestock.  I can hear a chorus of livestock producers, who care about the welfare of their livestock, saying, “The attitudes of their customers are too often influenced by bleeding hearts who don’t understand the challenges of raising animals to today’s market requirements.”

Where do those so-called “bleeding heart” attitudes come from?  Some of them are born out of uninformed anthropomorphism, that is, assigning human feelings to animals, but more often these days they originate in animal welfare science.

How did animal welfare become a science? What does animal welfare mean to an informed livestock producer? And how will understanding it better help a producer to be more successful in the future? You won’t be surprised to hear me say that it’s not simple and it will take time.

Attitude is a good place to start. There isn’t a successful business today that is not driven by the positive attitudes of those involved. On a very simple level, animal welfare scientists have examined how the attitudes of stockpersons influence the welfare of animals for whom they are responsible. They consistently find that livestock managed by stockpersons with a positive attitude towards the welfare of those animals have less stressful, more productive lives. 

More positive welfare means more productive animals who are less fearful and experience less stress.  The biochemical basis of more stress means less productivity.  The animals are channelling their energy resources towards producing stress hormones and away from producing muscle and wool, for example. Animals with higher stress hormones are also more prone to infections as they supress immune responses.

It’s not all about attitude, though. Good animal welfare involves all aspects of the stock’s experiences. That starts from when newly born stock first see the human who is responsible for them, through all the interactions that stockpersons have, including those, which by their nature are painful or at least negative experiences for the stock. It takes knowledge, experience and planning to minimise the stress-impact of those experiences. These producer skills come together to provide good quality nutrition, living environment and health.

In the last 20 or so years, welfare scientists have become aware that these three qualities of an animal’s life are important but still, they are not enough. We now know that stock have a genetic code which predates when humans domesticated them. They need to be able to behave in ways that are ‘natural’, or as they are encoded to do. If they can’t express their natural behaviours for some reason, then they can also suffer stress, which, as explained earlier, is the enemy of productivity.

Much of the negative attitude towards animal welfare by livestock producers comes from the impact of radical animal rights groups, to whom most farmers just cannot relate. A producer’s positive attitude towards animal welfare and continuing improvement of their welfare practises is positive for livestock production.  Another positive benefit is that producers practicing improved animal welfare have more positive experiences working with animals, so they enjoy stock work more, leading to less fearful stock who work more effectively with positive stockpersons. This is a healthy productive cycle of happy producers and contented livestock.

As a veterinarian and a scientist I am concerned that animal welfare has become such a dirty word that when farmers hear it, they switch off or react negatively against it.  Farmers with a better understanding of good animal welfare have a brighter future in their industry. They are in a better position to understand the animal welfare standards that their customers expect; to make strategic decisions to improve the welfare of the livestock they manage; and to manage any future animal welfare risks. 

A smart livestock producer knows good animal welfare and the opportunities it presents.

Dr Michael Paton
Animal Welfare Policy Research Manager

Michael is a veterinarian who is world-recognised with a PhD in a chronic disease of sheep called cheesy gland – work that was undertaken during his tenure with DPRID. Michael also holds a Graduate Certificate in Animal Welfare from Monash University.