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Welfare & Production – Producer's Point of View

by 5m Editor
24 November 2011, at 9:00am

INDIA - An overview of the difficulties of balancing animal welfare with meeting the growing demand for food by Dr T. Kotaiah, a poultry geneticist with Indbro Poultry.

Welfare activists put forth their point of view legally and forced a change in the course of Animal production. There has been a complete U-turn in EU countries in the production systems. The movement is being spread to growing economies and developing countries. The issue is 'Food' – its cost and efficiency of production. Changes in food prices affect the whole budget of the family and the financial lay out of the country.

Basically, the animal producers are following the systems developed not with an intention to hurt the animals. In fact, the animal producers go with an understanding that healthy animals give better returns. The systems that are being followed are developed over a period of time and are time tested. It is felt that the course of the events and the present day practices are not explained to the society properly by the animal producers. They can be explained. This is an attempt to explain the welfare activists why certain things are being done and what happens if changed.

Animal protein is found to be a more balanced food compared to vegetative food and is well utilized by the human body for growth, performance, reproduction and health. Using the animal products like eggs and milk with out killing the bird/animal has been most accepted form of human food though ethically they are not meant for human beings.

Hunting the wild animals for food has been accepted by the ancient civilisations.

Since the domestication has started, People started using the animals for food. Some animals are being specially bred and reared for food production. Beef cattle, sheep, goats and poultry are reared specially for human food. Since the requirement is huge, entrepreneurs took up animal food production as a business. Universities and research institutes were constituted to go in to the health and efficiency of the animal food production. Once it became a business, the main concentration is on the efficiency of production, the price for the consumer, food safety and be profitable. The animal production industry needs to have a set of infrastructure, input management systems and the health care in place. Research & Development work, which is expensive also has been initiated by the business people themselves along side the universities. Limits were fixed by the society for weight at slaughter and the form of meat eaten. Broiler chickens, growing fast and converting the vegetable food in to meat are specially bred to achieve the most efficient results.

It is a challenge to look after the live animals. Protecting them from wild animals, rearing them in large numbers, feed them cost effectively and convert in to food in the most acceptable form to the human beings.

Live animals respond to the environment in which they are reared. Their growth, livability and the feed conversion efficiency depend on the environment in which they live. The Food animals have to be reared in larger groups for efficiency in management. When the diseases strike, there is risk of loosing lot of them. lot of changes have been made to keep the animals in larger numbers comfortable, yet in the most efficient way.

It has always been found that the animals living comfortably only grow efficiently. There is no exception to animal comfort whether it is food animals or breeding animals.

The commercial producer has been experimenting with the most economical way to maintain the live animals. Universities and experimental stations are set up to look in to the most suitable systems of housing, feed and management to keep the animals in the most comfortable way so that we can get the best out of them. Production parameters are taken as the criterion to judge the comfort of the animals.

There has been lot of up-grading in housing, feed and management techniques, which were need-based. All the changes were experimented by the researchers and scientists first before commercialisation. The quality of the meat has been tremendously improved in tenderness, taste and safety as food. Some of the additives like hormones and antibiotic medicaments are avoided in animal foods, if found to be coming in to meat.

With regards to poultry, the following changes became controversial. The people supporting animal welfare interpret the production process in a different way with out going in to the evolution part of it.

Poultry production

The cost of feed all over the world has gone up by five times during the last decade. The price of eggs and meat have not gone up beyond two times. The price of chicken meat used to be more than that of beef and pork. Now it is much cheaper. This all happened because of the improved efficiency. The birds eat same quantity of feed what it was eating 10 years ago or even less. But the number of egg each hen lays has gone up. The broiler bird was using 2.2kg feed to gain 1kg weight a decade ago but it is taking only 1.7kg now. This has been possible through breeding, changes in feed and housing conditions. A bird which moves around covering lot of area wastes much energy, catches diseases and gets in to social interactions compared to the birds confined. Too much confinement again results in build up of gases from the excreta resulting on poor weight gain and feed efficiency which the farmer cannot afford. The current standards of area and feed are achieved after finding them to be the best.

Cages

Birds by nature have the habit of flying. Confinement has to be done for their comfort and protection. Growing the birds in range conditions was too expensive and the birds fall pray to predators. Deep litter rearing, where the birds live in groups was found after lot of research effort.

The birds grown in larger numbers in a group have social problems. The aggressive birds peck at the docile birds. They contact the diseases from the neighbours. An attempt was made by the researchers to keep the birds in smaller groups and away from the droppings (litter) which resulted in to invention of cages. The number of birds in cage and the size of the cage is determined keeping the basic parameters like production and mortality rate in mind. It should be appreciated that while the space per animal was being reduced, the number of eggs laid by the bird has gone up from 150 to 320 per bird. The egg size has gone up. The mortality rate came down from 12 per cent to six per cent. The eggs which are meant for food roll away from the dirt on a sloping floor. The egg has less contamination. It has been much easier to collect the eggs mechanically and the labor costs are reduced. Consider the cost of the feed and cost of the eggs during the last four or five decades. The feed prices have gone up by five times, whereas the egg prices have gone up two or three times. It is not possible to make uncomfortable and unhappy birds lay that efficiently.

The simulation of human being sitting in a confined cage is not applicable as for as the egg production is concerned.

Debeaking

Trimming the beak tip has come up as an effort of research to avoid cannibalism. The animals and birds have a natural tendency of social domination when kept in groups. The individuals try to establish a social order. One animal tries to boss over the next animal while it avoids confrontation with another dominant animal. When the bird pecks at the subordinate bird, the next bird is hurt. When the birds see blood, they get more inquisitive and peck more. Some times the problem is so severe, that it leads to the death of lot of subordinate bird.

The solution to the problems of pecking and cannibalism was carefully researched and the beak trimming emerged as a solution. The tip of the beak is a cartilage which grows like nail tissue. The sharp beak hurts the next bird it pecks at. Debeaking makes the beak blunt and avoids injury to the bird. Only the tip of the beak is cut and it is simultaneously cauterized to avoid the bleeding. This careful surgery is less painful than the pecking to the other birds.

Starvation

Human beings also find that starvation is good for the health. This is copied by the natural instinct of abstaining from food during sickness which was found helpful.

The animals naturally go off feed when sick and the free living hen goes off feed while it hatches the eggs. The bird stops laying eggs, loses weight and hatches the eggs in to chicks. In fact, the scientists and the egg producers have simulated the hen to reduce the production. Widely called as moulting, the birds are denied feed on a controlled basis. If the birds are denied feed only for saving the feed, the birds can die of starvation. The process of moulting has been researched widely. How much weight loss should be there to avoid death and get better production is not just withdrawal of feed and saving money on feed. It is a careful exercise prescribed by the scientists for prolonging the laying life of the birds.

Consequences of Going Back

Cost of production

The systems of poultry production as existing have been evolved through scientific process. Pains taking research has gone in to it. The evolution has led to certain production levels keeping both economy and the comfort of the bird. Nowhere is the comfort of the bird sacrificed because the bird in discomfort will not lay the eggs to the full potential. The cost of the egg to the consumer is based on the costs involved in production. Any relaxation in the production systems and going back only will lead to enhanced production costs and the consumer has to pay much more. It will not be a portion of the cost but few times the cost. Food purchase is essential and when it goes up, the overall cost of living goes up, leading to the imbalance in budgeting the income.

The birds will not be comfortable socially as the welfare activists are debating. The comfort to the bird habituated to pecking is denying the safety of the bird it pecks at. Hence the birds will not be comfortable at larger groups than it is prescribed after a painstaking research.

The producers will have to reinvest lot of money reinventing the old habits which is meaningless. It will be going back than going forward.

Food safety

Food safety is understood by one and all. Physical contamination of feed is the most common and avoidable problem. Eggs laid in deep litter are more liable to get contaminated by the excreta of the bird. Eggs that roll out and get collected from a belt are least contaminated. The dirt from the cages can be wiped out without much effort. Enteric bacteria that live in the intestine get to the surface of the egg as the egg comes out of the Cloaca. The birds which live on litter keep picking every thing it comes across and the build up of the enteric bacteria is much higher in eggs laid on litter compared to eggs laid in cages. The birds in cages have no opportunity to eat any thing other than the balanced feed offered. Hence the build up of enteric bacteria and possible contamination are much lesser. The disease, when it breaks out in deep litter among larger groups spreads much faster and can pose danger to the survival of the whole flock. In cages where the birds live in small groups of three to five, we have a chance to contain the infection and prevent the spread of the diseases.

This is a healthier way of dealing with the food safety.