Happy animals produce more – that’s what Uwe Mucke, Head of Animal Health Commercial Operations Europe, strongly believes. He personally decided to purchase carefully chosen products that come from farms with good livestock conditions. Many others share his perspective: Animal well-being is a global focus, often discussed in association with sustainability, productivity and environmental issues. Uwe Mucke has been working at Bayer Animal Health for 30 years – currently based in Barcelona, Spain. He wants to create even more awareness and improvements in livestock farming.
In 200 years, will humans still be eating animal proteins? Probably yes, but our eating habits will likely change massively. Still, this will only happen over time.
The global demand for meat is increasing, largely because of the growing population and rising affluence in some regions. To meet this rising demand sustainably, it’s crucial to rethink how to keep and raise farm animals.
Modern food production is complex. There are many players along the production chain, and it is price sensitive. For some, it may seem logical to try to minimize overall production costs in order to meet international price pressures. However, when it comes to animal husbandry, more and more scientific studies reveal that investing into enhancing farm animal well-being and housing also has a strong impact on improved productivity, better meat quality and, as a result, the farmers’ profits. This is an important message that we share and demonstrate to our customers all the time.
Animals make an invaluable contribution to the world. By consuming animal products, human beings developed into what we are today. Treating animals with respect and taking care of their well-being is the right thing to do for every civilized human. Most scientists agree that animals have emotions; they can be sad or frightened, and can feel empathy for their fellow animals. I share this perspective and have the conviction that we must care for the animals’ feelings.
Animal well-being is more than hugging cows
Animal well-being activities started in the 1960s in the United Kingdom. Today, farmers in the UK still take a leading role in Europe for this more humane way of keeping animals. Animal well-being is based on five pillars. These are the animals’ freedom from fear and distress; from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury and diseases; as well as the animals’ freedom to express their normal behavior.
These five freedoms are based on science, as well as on our moral sense and legislation. Nowadays, it is possible to measure symptoms of stress in farm animals through their body language and more sophisticated measurement methods like cortisol hormone levels. From the moral perspective, no consumer wants to be responsible for animal suffering just by buying milk or other products. In addition, legislation can even prohibit inadequate treatment of animals. While it takes time to implement new laws to achieve this effect, there is rapidly increasing awareness and pressure from society, non-governmental organizations and industry. With consumers paying more attention to these discussions, food companies and retailers are likewise more conscious about not facilitating or supporting the sale or processing of meat from distressed cows, chicken or pigs. One can say that the trade itself is getting more demanding, which spurs many producers to voluntarily develop animal-friendly standards in order to ensure market acceptance. In some Brazilian supermarkets, transparency has already reached a high level: Consumers in the supermarket can scan a code to see a video of the farm where the meat comes from. I think that this trend will soon arrive and establish itself in Europe, too.
At Bayer, we consider advancements in animal well-being to be an on-going journey. This is why we actively seek opportunities to apply our expertise and influence to support livestock professionals to further enhance conditions on farms and stables, for the benefit of the animals. We share best practices and demonstrate through case studies that animals work best if they are mentally balanced and physically healthy. Caring for their overall health will further prevent diseases and therefore save labor and costs from medical treatments.
Together with our animal well-being specialists, we engage with farmers all over Europe and share concrete ideas to further optimize animal farming. Six months later, we’ll return to look at the implementation in practice. This hands-on and practical approach has been very well received. Participating farmers are also pleased to receive a certificate that documents their good farming practices from independent animal well-being specialists. In Spain, the University of Barcelona is one of our partners. We are still reaching out for many new partnerships to broaden our program internationally.
The reality of animal well-being
Livestock farmers are dependent on their animals. Taking care of their health and well-being helps ensure sustainability of the farm. There are many ways to care for the health of farm animals, starting with a clean stable to avoid disease, maintain healthy nutrition and manage a place that is appropriate for the species in terms of space, temperature and comfort zones. But our guidance goes far beyond this: It includes, for instance, the use of analgesics when an animal needs to undergo a surgical procedure, like cow dehorning or cutting pig tails. Another example would be to entertain intelligent animals, like pigs, by hanging toys from the ceilings in their stables or putting straw on the ground so that pigs can root around. The pigs will have more distractions, and thus more ways to express their ‘normal’ behavior; we have found this to reduce the likelihood of them biting each other’s tails. Some people also don’t know that chickens usually live in small groups and prefer to stay in a relatively small area together. Although a laying battery cage might seem cruel, housing them in free run barns with up to 200,000 animals doesn’t necessarily make them feel more comfortable either.
For us, cattle well-being is also an important area since they are an important source of milk and meat. One of our first recommendations to farmers is to use prosthetic teats when feeding baby calves with a milk substitute, even during the first weeks after birth. This method will help the calves grow better and to give more milk after first lactation once they are grown up. There is also a growing recognition that the previously common farming practice of taking baby calves away from their mothers causes distress for both of them. Some farmers and well-being experts even recommend leaving the calves with their mothers for the first three months. Mother cows usually give enough milk to feed their calves and produce milk for the farmer. The baby calves will develop better, healthier, and the mother will not suffer pain from separation.
We have also been successful in introducing some new, alternative cattle handling methods to farmers. In place of using traditional stocks, cattle prods or any other instruments designed to move cattle, we demonstrate to farmers that a flag on a stick is all they need to move cows without stress while keeping the animals and the handler safe. Otherwise, not only would they stress and hurt their cows, but they would also impair the meat that could be produced. Large areas with injuries and bruises would have to be removed later during the meat processing. This lowers the meat quantity and quality and thus the farmers’ income.
We have many more ideas to help farmers make their animals feel better. If they produce under animal-friendly conditions, their products don’t necessarily have to become more expensive. The costs depend on so many factors, including the location and the animals’ food. But diseases and the use of medications can also drive up costs.
What benefits animals also benefits farmers. If farmers take good care of their livestock, they will also have fewer costs for medicines, fewer losses and naturally better productivity. Animal fertility can improve and the amount of milk and meat will increase. Improving animal well-being will have a positive impact on the production in Europe and elsewhere. Of course, this also includes our pets, like my beloved dogs, which I adopted after finding them abandoned and injured on the streets.