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OSU Extension raising animal welfare awareness

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Written Wednesday, April 08, 2009  

From a recent HBO documentary that chronicled a 2006 alleged animal abuse case at an Ohio pig farm to the current rumored movement by the Humane Society of the United States to target animal rights in Ohio, animal welfare is still a hot issue that stirs the emotions no matter what side of the fence one stands on.

On the agriculture front, Ohio State University Extension continues to be proactive in educating the farming sector on how to get the most out of animal productivity in a nurturing environment. Animal welfare is the concept of minimizing emotional or physical suffering of animals in whatever capacity they are serving their purpose in society.

Naomi Botheras, Ohio State University Extension animal welfare specialist, said that producers might not realize that how they verbally and physically handle their livestock could have a profound impact on animal behavior, as well as performance.

"Animals are incredibly sensitive to our behavior," Botheras said. "Everything from physical force, such as slapping, to more mild behavior such as yelling or quick movement around animals, can be aversive.

"The idea behind the animal welfare education is to turn people's negative behaviors -- kicking, hitting, shouting -- into positive behaviors -- walking slowly, talking calmly and being more physically gentle."

For the past several years, Ohio State's Department of Animal Sciences in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has worked to boost animal welfare awareness in Ohio. The efforts have been in collaboration with Australia’s Animal Welfare Science Centre, a joint organization with Australia’s University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Victorian State Department of Primary Industries. The Centre is internationally recognized as a leading research and educational facility of animal welfare topics.

The following are some examples of OSU Extension's animal welfare research projects and educational efforts:

* Botheras and her colleagues conducted research during a six-month period examining the impacts of different floor surfaces on dairy cattle performance. The idea was that softer floor surfaces -- rubber as opposed to concrete -- would alleviate lameness and boost cattle performance. The findings found no significant statistical difference in cattle performance between concrete floors and rubber mats. However, Botheras contends that the results would be different if a longevity study was conducted. "Lameness is a condition that takes time to go away. If a longer study was conducted, say for a year, perhaps the results would be different and the flooring option could be something that would benefit not only the producers, but the animals as well."

* Botheras also is leading a research study on the interaction between humans and turkeys -- how human contact affects the birds' productivity. "We have a substantial amount of research that points to a clear and consistent relationship between how dairy cows, pigs and laying hens are handled and their productivity. Basically, those animals that are most fearful have the lowest productivity," she said. "This relationship has not been explored in turkeys and we want to see if it would be the same, with the ultimate goal of providing training to workers that would change their behavior for the betterment of the birds and for productivity."

* OSU Extension has launched animal welfare training programs for swine and dairy producers. ProHand Dairy Cows and ProHand Pigs are cognitive behavioral intervention training programs that train producers and workers on developing and implementing the right attitudes and beliefs toward how they handle the animals. So far, farms that have participated in the programs have noticed an increase in animal productivity due to the behavioral changes of the workers. Under the ProHand Dairy training, producers have seen a 5 percent increase in milk production, and under the ProHand Swine training, producers have seen an increase in sow reproductive performance of one piglet per sow per year.

“When it comes to handling animals, people tend to use long-established behaviors, what we tend to do every day through force of habit," Botheras said. "What we are striving to do is change those behaviors, undo that way of thinking and get people to realize just how significant harmful negative interactions can be."

For more information on OSU Extension's animal welfare initiatives, contact Naomi Botheras at 614-292-3776 or botheras.1@osu.edu .

In addition to animal welfare efforts in the Department of Animal Sciences, Ohio State's Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine recently hired a faculty member leading research efforts in animal bioethics, the effects of human-animal interactions on animal and human quality of life, animal cognition and public perceptions of animal agriculture. To learn more, contact Candace Croney at 614-292-0974 or croney.1@osu.edu .

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