Despite having always lived in a city, I am surprisingly enthusiastic about farms. After spending hours cleaning sheep’s wool and learning how to properly milk cows as a child, I feel just as comfortable in a haystack as on a crowded urban street. However, the care and health of agricultural animals is far more complicated than most realize and animal research plays a key role in the wellbeing of animals on a farm.
Farming and animal husbandry require space, time, energy, and money. Just like our pets, farm animals have many specific housing, care, and health needs. From behavioral studies that maximize animal welfare, to the study of different diets, to tests that determine the effectiveness of medications, animal research has contributed greatly to the wellbeing of livestock. Let’s take a closer look at some of these developments.
According to the National Research Council (NRC), “Animals should be housed with a goal of maximizing species-specific behaviors and minimizing stress-induced behaviors.” However, before the welfare significance of an animal’s behavior can be determined, researchers must understand the cause of the behavior – and this requires animal research. By studying the internal and external motivation behind animal behaviors, researchers glean information that helps farmers fulfill the behavioral welfare needs of the animals in their care.
Research of animal behavior – a field of study known as ethology – can, for example, help farmers design barns that are more comfortable for animals. Often these tests are conducted by providing animals with multiple options and observing which environment they most prefer. A pioneering study of this kind determined that “hens preferred the hexagonal mesh in spite of its gauge being so fine that wires parted during the experiment, resulting in potentially damaging holes. The findings indicated that welfare considerations are not necessarily incompatible with cage floor designs which minimise egg breakage; a very light floor may be as comfortable as a heavy, solid one.” Such studies can also determine which toys, snacks, and environmental enrichment activities animals prefer, thus improving the overall health and wellbeing of the animals.
When someone says they are taking care of their health, it generally means they are exercising regularly and eating right. The same is true for farm animals.
As a general rule, exercise is correlated with better health. A study in dairy cows revealed that daily walks led to fewer leg problems, lower incidence of mastitis, and less calving-related disorders, compared to cows kept in tie stalls. Another study, this time with chickens, determined that taller cages with raised perches, allowing for more movement, resulted in greater bone length, wing strength, and foot health.
Health, however, is a complex concept, and also involves nutrition. For humans, vast quantities of information – perhaps too much – are available regarding proper nutrition. However, livestock have very different digestive systems and different nutritional requirements. For instance, cows have four stomachs instead of one, so animal studies are required to better understand their digestion. Researchers at the EPA farm in Nevada operated on a cow named Big Sam to create a fistula, or passageway, between one of the cow’s stomachs and the outside of his body. The fistula does not hurt Big Sam nor does it disrupt his normal behavior; it can be closed with a plug. He is now a valuable research resource for farmers who must care for cattle and feed them properly. Such animal research improves the health of the cattle on our farms.
Farm animals get sick too, but it is much harder to take a half-ton horse to the veterinarian than it is to take your average house pet. That is why farm veterinarians often come to the animal instead of the other way around. And they, of course, need effective treatments to care for their patients on such “house calls”. Many of the medications for farm animals are similar to ones used in humans. For example the antibiotic penicillin, which was developed through research in mice, is used to treat infections in cows. Other medicines, such as ionophores – used to treat a common parasitic poultry disease called coccidiosis – are created solely for usage in livestock. Animal research makes possible the medicines our farm animals need.
Like people, farm animals are administered vaccines when they are born to keep them from getting sick. As animals on farms come in contact with a variety of diseases and pests, vaccines are a critical part of their wellbeing. Numbering 19 billion worldwide, chickens are commonly exposed to Fowl Pox – also known as Avian Pox. Thankfully, despite there being no cure, an effective live-virus vaccine has been developed through research in mice and is readily available for farmers to give their chicks.
Animal research has benefited farming through studies of livestock productivity, housing, nutrition, and disease. As the human population continues to increase, more and more animals will be necessary to meet a growing demand for food. Animal research will help to make this possible by providing for livestock’s needs – such as regular exercise, nutritious food, proper shelter, and effective medication when they get sick – to ensure that they are safe and healthy.