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The Importance of Animal Welfare in Organic Livestock Production – Part 1

By Jane Morrigan, M.Sc.

Organic livestock producers have a unique and excellent opportunity to meet the increasing demand of modern consumers, for safe meat products. They are asking for locally produced, high-quality, chemical-free products from animals who were humanely raised and killed. This market is growing at a staggering pace. For instance, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently reported that sales of organic meat, fish and poultry in the USA increased by 77.8% in 2003, compared with 2002.

In principle, organic livestock production recognizes the farmer’s ethical obligations to the animals she or he cares for, and requires the provision of an environment in which the animals can maximize expression of natural behaviour, while at the same time not compromising their safety and well-being.

A handy definition of good animal welfare is “fit and feeling good”. Not only do animals require good quality feed, shelter and protection from disease and injury, they also have emotional needs that relate directly to both physical and psychological health. For instance, calves enjoy and benefit from the opportunity to play with other calves. Not only is the exercise good for the development of strong, healthy bodies, but the social interaction serves to strengthen bonds of kinship within the herd.

“Is the animal suffering?” is the most important question in assessing an animal’s welfare. To do this properly involves using animal-based measures that consider the outcome to the animal, of a given environmental factor such as barn design or feeding regime. For instance, measuring actual lameness in a free-stall dairy barn provides an accurate description of the welfare state of cows in that barn, as opposed to relying on ‘input’ criteria such as minimum stall size.

How can organic livestock farmers address food safety concerns? The new Canadian Standard for Organic Production Systems addresses this with, among other things, prohibitions of veterinary pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and synthetic parasiticides, prohibitions on the feeding of mammalian or avian by-products to ruminants, on the use of growth hormones and reproductive hormones. Certified organic production, as a system, can go a long way to reassure consumers that the certified organic meat they buy is safe to eat.

To meet food quality concerns, following the recommendations in the Codes of Practice and modified or reinforced by the Canadian Organic Standard and those of the Certifying Bodies, will ultimately result in safe, high quality meat. Central to the success of these recommendations is the practice of good animal welfare techniques. For instance, the Code of Practice for Dairy Cattle recommends that cows who live in a tie-stall barn should regularly exercise. The Organic Standard requires that cows exercise and also have access to fresh air and the opportunity to express normal behaviours. Cows benefit physically and psychologically when they can socialize at will with herdmates in a sufficiently spacious and clean environment where they can eat, rest, and groom each other.

Animal welfare techniques used during the pre-slaughter period play an especially important role in relation to meat quality. Pre-slaughter stress causes serious problems for both the animals while they are still alive, and the end-products. Dark-cutting or DFD (Dark Firm Dry) in beef occurs as a result of excessive physical exertion, either from mounting activity or from repeated attempts at escape, and from poor body condition at the time of slaughter. PSE, or Pale Soft Exudative meat, occurs in pork when pigs are handled roughly, mixed and crowded prior to slaughter. In chickens, bruising and broken bones can easily occur when the birds are caught, handled roughly before and after transportation, and while hanging from their feet on the kill-rail prior to stunning and slaughter. All of these problems can be greatly reduced by humane handling and knowledgeable, animal-based design of procedures and facilities. For instance, trucking beef animals in familiar groups, directly to a nearby abattoir, and penning them there without splitting them up, will reduce the likelihood of dark-cutting in the carcasses.


Jane Morrigan, M.Sc., is the Website Coordinator for the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC), and a former dairy farmer who completed a Master’s thesis on the welfare of cull dairy cows. For more information please contact the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at 902-893-7256 or email oacc@dal.ca


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Posted on the OACC website, June 2006

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