The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research has awarded a $75,000 grant to the USDA Agricultural Research Service to examine how environmental enrichment techniques can improve pig welfare. Nestle and Tyson Foods provided matching funding for a total $150,000 investment.
The U.S. livestock industry recognizes the need to improve animal welfare including developing better living conditions, which positively affects health and overall well-being. Group housing benefits pigs by improving social stimulation, but it also sometimes results in damaging behaviors like tail-biting and ear-chewing which occur, in part, due to boredom or frustration. Providing pigs with access to toys and devices, referred to as environmental enrichment, may reduce aggressive interactions and improve welfare.
"There is increasing public attention on how food is produced, and animal welfare is becoming more important," says Jeremy Marchant-Forde, USDA-ARS animal scientist. "Retailers and consumers expect farm animals to have a certain quality of life and it is essential that livestock industries meet that expectation."
Providing enrichment can reduce stress levels, increase performance and productivity and decrease aggressive or abnormal behavior towards other pigs. Researchers are testing various environmental enrichment devices like chew toys and other devices and measuring their effects on pig welfare at key development stages in the pigs' life cycle. Pig producers will use the results to develop environmental enrichment management strategies that benefit pig welfare and performance.
FFAR, Nestle and Tyson Foods are funding one of the first studies in the United States that examines the impact of enrichment materials on U.S. pigs. This research is assessing the pigs' welfare by measuring behavior, health and growth rates.
In Europe, minimum standards for pig production have already been successfully implemented, positively impacting pig health and welfare. This research examines how some European environmental enrichment practices can be applied to the U.S. livestock industry.
"Apps, trinkets and doodling help many of us pass time and process information - turns out pigs feel the same way. Understanding how environmental enrichment impacts pig welfare pushes the needle in the right direction to ensuring that animal welfare is protected, while maintaining productivity and profitability," says Sally Rockey, FFAR's executive director. "This research will provide swine producers with ways to provide enrichment that they can then easily implement on their farms with minimal cost and effort."