Science toying with pig comfort

Swine, farmers could both gain

If chickens can have perches, why can't pigs have toys? In efforts to improve animal welfare, researchers are studying the effects of giving hogs raised for slaughter access to chew toys and other doodads.

The hypothesis is that "environmental enrichments" such as tough, rubberized balls may reduce aggressive or fearful behavior among swine.

"It's something that can be used in production systems and could be good for both the pigs' welfare and productivity, which farmers are always mindful of," said Tim Kurt, a scientific program director with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit partially funded by Congress to address food and farm challenges.

Tyson Foods first approached the foundation about researching enrichment after considering the hog farms of Europe, which use straw bedding compared with America's concrete slabs.

"Because we don't use straw bedding, we were interested in other things to offer the animals," Kurt said.

Researchers are toying with options that are similar to Kong products for dogs, a bubbly snowman-shaped cone often used for chewing.

"They're funny," he said of the toys. "You can hang them in most cases, or throw them into the pen."

Scientists have also considered what accoutrements in chicken houses would do for the birds. Researchers at Perdue Farms and Tyson a few years ago studied the effects of giving chicks perches to "play" on, with the goal being more active chickens.

For pigs, the idea is a bit different. Kurt said they want to reduce aggressive interactions, ultimately reducing stress in swine herds. Scientists measure this by taking blood samples from hogs and testing for the stress hormone cortisol. They also take into account how pigs interact with the toys and whether they show signs of fear or boredom.

Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, said repetitive behaviors in sows such as pacing, biting or chewing when nothing is present are thought to be signs of stress or boredom and are widely written about in animal literature.

"If stress and boredom lead to lower productivity, then there is a clear business interest in seeking remedies," Lusk said. "It is possible that toys or other stimuli may reduce stress or boredom, which might improve health, welfare and productivity."

According to the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, group housing of pigs is more sociable but can result in damaging behaviors such as tail-biting and ear-chewing. Toys and other enrichments could change that. Pigs are considered intelligent animals able to communicate with humans, similar to dogs, National Geographic reported.

"There is increasing public attention on how food is produced, and animal welfare is becoming more important," said Dr. Jeremy Marchant-Forde, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in prepared remarks. "Retailers and consumers expect farm animals to have a certain quality of life, and it is essential that livestock industries meet that expectation."

Congress created the research foundation in 2014 under the federal farm bill as a way to finance research along with private companies. It received $200 million in federal funds when it was established during the Obama administration, and $185 million last year.

The foundation awarded a $75,000 grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the effects of giving toys and devices to hogs. Nestle and Tyson Foods offered matching funds for a total investment of $150,000.

"Throughout our value chain, we keep animal welfare top of mind and urge our independent farmers to do the same," Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said in an email Monday. "Our support of the FFAR project provides an opportunity to support animal experience research and innovation, and we look forward to sharing the learnings with our producers."

Lusk said it was similar to how zookeepers entertain tigers and lions.

"[They] often provide toys or other activities to such animals in an effort to improve real or perceived animal welfare issues," Lusk said.

Business on 03/10/2020

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