Humane animal husbandry

Animal welfare is an important topic within society. The Dutch livestock sector faces the challenge of ensuring animals are kept humanely. Wageningen University & Research has the knowledge and skills needed to achieve a humane livestock sector ("dierwaardige veehouderij").

What is considered humane is not just a question of knowledge and experience but is also determined by society. Wageningen scientists study and substantiate the animals’ needs for a good and pleasant life. They investigate what the requirements are for their surroundings and measure their quality of life. Thus, we help advance the discourse towards a food system in which animals are kept humanely.

Humane livestock farming agreement

Our scientists provide knowledge for the humane livestock farming agreement (Dutch webpage). This agreement, together with the amended Law on Animals, states that animals may not suffer injury or discomfort as a consequence of being kept in a stable, barn or pen. They must be free to display their natural behaviour. The agreement will serve as a basis for legislation to develop and anchor humane animal husbandry. Positive developments also occur at a European level. The Farm to Fork policy will hone the regulations with regard to animal housing.

The Dutch livestock sector

The Dutch livestock sector developed into one of the world’s most productive food systems following the end of the Second World War. Specialisation and economies of scale drove the desire to produce large quantities of affordable food, including animal-based food. This type of livestock farming is also known as intensive animal husbandry or bio-industry. The adverse effects of this form of livestock farming are increasingly under scrutiny within society.

Animal welfare

The focus in animal welfare has long been on just preventing discomforts such as tail-biting in pigs, feather plucking in chickens, and avoiding disease, stress and pain. Humane livestock farming is about quality of life from the animal’s perspective and offering the animal a life worth living. Or “happiness” in human terms.

Six principles of humane livestock farming

The Animal Affairs Council (Dutch: Raad voor Dierenaangelegenheden, RDA) has translated welfare into six leading principles. Respect for the intrinsic value of the animal is the point of departure for these principles. Essential prerequisites are proper nutrition, surroundings and health. The animal must be able to exhibit natural behaviour and feel good.

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The Brambell Commission formulated five freedoms in 1965, which served as a basis for animal welfare for a long time. RDA included these freedoms in six basic principles:

  1. Recognising the animal’s intrinsic value
  2. Proper nutrition
  3. Proper surroundings
  4. Good health
  5. Natural behaviour
  6. Positive emotional condition

RDA has made an important amendment through the sixth principle: achieving a positive emotional state. Livestock farming should be designed to enable the animal to meet its needs and have positive experiences. Ensuring a pig is healthy is no longer sufficient. It must also be able to exhibit behaviour that is typical of its species, such as rooting, within its housing system.

WUR research

Animals have intrinsic value as sentient beings. They experience both negative (pain, stress, fear) and positive (pleasure, comfort, curiosity) feelings. Humane animal keeping is more than just proper physical health. The animal can achieve a positive mental state (positive well-being) when its living environment matches its behavioural needs. Wageningen University & Research conducts research on this matter.

Positive emotional state

Animal welfare is maintaining a balance between positive and negative experiences. Negative experiences are considered part of life, both for feral and domesticated animals. The key lies in ensuring the kept animal has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Targeted interventions to induce positive emotions are achieved by enabling the animal to exhibit its natural behaviour and autonomy. This means that kept animals must have freedom of choice, variation in their environment and physical and mental challenges. Much research has been done on the positive impact cognitive challenges have on the mental state of pigs and goats.

Respecting autonomy

Autonomy and returning to the animal control over its choices means allowing it to maintain itself because it is less dependent on our care. This is also known as self-determination.

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Every animal has its personality, which is not just species-specific but also varies per individual animal. Autonomy means that an animal is able to pursue endeavours it values. It is about an animal being capable of self-preservation within a suitable environment, where the animal is able to fulfil its own needs.

It is not just the result that matters but the behaviour that leads to the result. Many animals prefer to work for food rather than just have it provided for them. Hence, it is not just the availability of food that is important but the act of searching, finding and acquiring it.

Studies show that pecking at insects for feed benefits chickens’ well-being, regardless of the benefits that using insects as food and feed can have as a dietary supplement and for a more sustainable food system.

Species-specific or natural behaviour

A species’ behavioural needs, stemming from evolution, form the species-specific natural behaviour. The new Animal Law states that an animal-friendly barn must be adjusted to the animals’ needs rather than vice versa.

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In the course of evolution, animals have developed mechanisms to enhance their chances of survival and reproduction in a changing environment. Much is already known about animals’ natural behaviour. For example, chickens prefer to rest in an elevated spot, forage and sun or sand bathe in synchronicity. Pigs like to root, play and take mud baths, and pregnant sows want to build a birthing nest. The Family Pig innovative barn provides solutions.

All these mechanisms are driven by so-called cognitive and emotional motivational systems. These systems may be aligned with the animal’s needs, such as eating and drinking, sleeping and resting, defecating and urinating, respiration, thermo-comfort, foraging, exploring, social behaviour, grooming, exercise, reproduction, sexual behaviour, nesting behaviour and maternal behaviour. The animal is motivated to meet these needs regardless of whether its environment permits it to do so. This motivation has barely been curbed by breeding.

Value of humane animal husbandry

Humane livestock husbandry benefits the animal itself in the first place. Striving to achieve a positive state of being enables the animal to feel good, but it also benefits humans. An animal that feels good is more resilient and less susceptible to disease. Healthy animals are essential to food safety and in keeping with the One Health philosophy: the link between animal welfare, animal health and food-related diseases. Humane animal farming contributes to a resilient and healthy livestock sector and vice versa.

Behavioural change

Putting the animals’ needs first calls for behavioural change in farmers, agribusiness, consumers and civilians. Famers will do more to facilitate the animal in its natural behaviour, and consumers will have to accept that costs incurred to achieve a more humane livestock sector will be passed on in the price of animal-based products.

WUR provides scientific knowledge from a range of disciplines and contributes significantly to policy decisions in favour of humane livestock husbandry. Food production is more than just efficiency and safety. Added value is achieved by focusing on the relationship between humans, animals, and nature.