The Importance of Animal Husbandry: New Insights

Rethinking Livestock Management and Animal Housing by Considering Animal Psychology

The Importance of Animal Husbandry: New Insights

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Animal husbandry currently focuses on health, reproduction, and security. We have built efficient and hygienic systems, which have been optimized commercially for production. Recent cognitive studies reveal a new dimension that we should be prepared to accommodate if we wish our animals to live healthy, fulfilling lives, and if commercial practices are to remain sustainable. The importance of animal husbandry methods and animal housing is not to be underestimated, as they impact health and production.

Cognitive research examines the mental capacities of animals and how they perceive and react to their environment. So far, researchers have only scratched the surface of what can be learned about farm animals’ minds. Those of us who are close to our animals gain notions of the depth of their emotional lives. However, many consumers and businesses still conceive of farm animals as simplistic. The growing body of evidence points to abilities and complexity far beyond what has been assumed. Data reveal that commercial farmers can benefit from improved long-term production by catering to their animals’ welfare, as stress impairs the immune system and productivity. As backyard farmers, we too can benefit from cognitive insights to ensure the well-being of those in our care.

Research into farm animal psychology reveals the importance of animal husbandry practices that improve animal welfare on the farm.

How to Improve Animal Welfare

Welfare assessment has shifted from the prevention of suffering to meeting animals’ physical and psychological needs, for which we need to know more about animal minds. It is easy to assign human feelings and motives to animals, especially if we are fond of them, but we may not do them any favors by doing so. We need to be aware of their limitations as well as their capabilities, and ensure that we provide an environment in which they can meet their biological needs. These go beyond food, safety, and sound bodies to include behavior and mental stimulation that are essential for animal well-being. We need to be prepared to take on new ideas and adapt our livestock management systems to improve our animals’ life experience as new knowledge is revealed.

In a natural setting, a sow will seek out shade, a mud bath, and secluded places to meet her needs.
Researchers investigate goats’ mental abilities in order to understand what kind of environment and stimulation they need. Photo credit FBN.

Companions Are Important in Farm Animal Psychology

Farm animals are highly social, having evolved as herd animals fine-tuned to predatory risk. The depth and complexity of their social lives may not be fully appreciated in livestock management systems where animals are frequently regrouped according to age, productive cycle, or trading requirements. Not only do herd animals prefer familiar companions and seek to eject strangers, they need a stable group to avoid conflict and stress. Some species, notably cattle and goats, form bonds with preferred individuals. Long-term bonds confer emotional benefits which cannot be established when herd composition is frequently changed. Similarly, strong bonds are quickly built between dam and offspring, notably in cattle, sheep, and goats. The dairy system imposes early separation of parent and newborn, which is temporarily distressing and has long-term implications for the youngsters’ behavioral development.

Sheep need familiar companions, access to shelter, and facilities to scratch, such as a log. A bank of trees or a DIY mobile sheep shelter can provide for these needs.

Research has confirmed considerable social skills for identifying familiar companions. Sheep recognize both human and sheep faces from photographs and remember their flock-mates’ faces for several years. Goats use heads, bodies, and voices to distinguish familiar herd-mates. Vision is used less by pigs, who are more reliant on smell. They use visual, vocal, and scent clues to identify their companions and, to some extent, familiar humans. Identification of humans may be less precise: pigs using mainly body height, while cattle use face, body, and clothing features. However, animals that are treated gently identify and prefer familiar handlers, whereas those treated roughly generalize their fear to other humans.

Farm animals also pick up on their companions’ emotions by their smell and the sound of their calls. Sheep and goats are sensitive to the facial expressions of herd mates, while goats and horses react to human facial expression. The behavior of companions influences how animals approach vital resources. Pigs in trials altered their foraging behavior to avoid a dominant sow stealing from them. It is wise to consider the effects of social competition when designing the layout of housing for pigs and other competitive species.


The Importance of Animal Husbandry Handling Methods

Handlers’ manner greatly affects farm animal behavior. With non-threatening posture, positive reinforcement training, and low-stress livestock handling, we can greatly reduce stress and fear associated with handling and transport. Staring and looming over animals can be fear inducing: sheep were more mobile and vigilant while being stared at. Goats and horses are well aware of when we are paying attention to them. We can reduce the stress of handling and recognize their needs if we are sensitive to animals’ body language and their interpretation of our behavior. Goats and horses attempt to communicate with people and indicate their needs by alternating glances at their handler and the item they desire. Horses, pigs, and goats can follow directions from humans who point out or touch the location of food. Goats learn how to get to feed by following the route taken by a human.

The Importance of Social Learning in Animal Husbandry

Farm animals learn from each other, as well as from people. Young animals are influenced by their elders and learn about safety and food choices from their mothers. Pigs also learn about food sources from their companions by observing or hearing them or from the scent of their snouts. Goats are more independent learners once past a young age, but most farm animals benefit from the activities of their peers for foraging and developing life skills. Farm animals are often fearful of a new environment and need time to learn to use new equipment. The presence of familiar companions who already know the enclosure and facilities greatly helps to reduce fear and speed learning. Lambs were found to learn to use an artificial teat quicker when accompanied by experienced companions. Calves are less distressed in groups than in separate stalls and show higher weigh gains.

Rabbits need company, but also the ability to hide and seek privacy. Photo credit David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

The communal nature of most herd activities provides emotional support and an assurance of safety to herd members. When we design facilities, we need to bear in mind that animals will want to eat, rest, and groom together. Animals that are prevented from joining in by lack of space or facilities may feel frustration or depression from exclusion. However, tight spacing may lead to aggression, due to the competitive nature of herd animals. To live in groups, these species establish a hierarchy to keep the peace, but stability is dependent on subordinates keeping the appropriate distance from top ranking individuals.

The Importance of Enriched Animal Housing

When considering how to house goats or other social animals, favor housing designs that structure space to accommodate social needs for community and privacy. Partitions can compartmentalize barns into different areas for different activities or sub-groups. Rest places can be away from feeding and activity zones, while dunging areas can be kept apart from beds. Places to hide give respite for subordinate or weary animals, while enrichment areas provide mental and physical stimulation.

Goat housing at research station with platforms, hiding places, and spacing at troughs. Photo credit C. Nawroth.

Hours spent in a featureless pen, such as those traditionally used within barns or small enclosures, can lead to boredom. Boredom induces stress which can develop into abnormal, and sometimes destructive, behaviors. Structures, toys, and challenges could be introduced to induce interest and occupation. We need to understand which kind of enrichment would be biologically meaningful, and therefore satisfying, for farm animals. For this, we need more research into the kind of mental abilities and limitations these animals have. So far, we gauge mental skills related to their foraging lifestyles, indicating that they value challenges related to finding food in a natural way, be it rooting in pigs, climbing in goats, or scratching in chickens. Variety is important, especially for animals evolved to search and select from a patchy environment, such as goats and pigs. Be it a food toy or a physical or mental exercise, we change it regularly to renew its novelty value, or they will soon tire of it.

Horses enjoy ball play. Photo credit John Ramspott/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Goats have abstract skills due to their evolution in challenging terrains. In studies, they have been trained to use symbols to dispense a reward. When the symbols are changed, they adapt their learning to find the new solution. There is evidence that this practice is stimulating and that some goats seek out the puzzles when a similar prize is available without the challenge. Pigs too enjoyed reduced stress levels after learning to dispense food from a device after responding to a sound. Heifers became more excited when receiving a treat after learning a task than their companions who got the treat for free. We can observe in our own backyard that chickens prefer to scratch for their food than take it from a dispenser. Artificial challenges could present means of enhancing farm animal lives at times when ranging is restricted.

Source: Nawroth, C., Langbein, J., Coulon, M., Gabor, V., Oesterwind, S., Benz-Schwarzburg, J. and von Borell, E. 2019. Farm animal cognition—linking behavior, welfare and ethics. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6.

Originally published in Countryside January/February 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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