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Danish animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs

How can we tell if the level of animal welfare for cattle and pigs in Denmark is good, and whether it will improve from year to year? New animal welfare indices aim to help answering that question.

Animal welfare indices to measure the level of animal welfare
The purpose of developing animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs is to create an overview of the level of animal welfare at a national level and to make it possible to follow the development over time.

The animal welfare indices will give the authorities, politicians and the farming industry a better foundation for making decisions that could improve animal welfare.

Furthermore the indices will make it possible to measure the effect of different initiatives for production of cattle and pigs – e.g. change in legislation and informational campaigns – on animal welfare. 
A collaboration between authorities and universities
The development of national animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs stretches over a four year period from 2013 to 2016.

The project is managed by The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and is carried out in close collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University.
The indices are ready for use after 2016
The project is carried out from 2013-2016 and will develop a model for calculating animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs. In addition an implementation plan for the indices and how they are to be used in practice will be prepared.

Subsequently, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration will e.g. annually or every second year be able to calculate indices on the basis of already existing registry data and on the basis of data collected on farms for this purpose.
An index is a ratio
An index is a statistical value of measurable quantities in comparison with a specific reference number. The index serves as a benchmark for measuring changes over a period.   
The index number calculated in the first year functions as a reference value and is assigned an arbitrary value of 100. Subsequent index values calculated during the following years are expressed in relation to this base.

Separate indices for subgroups of cattle and swine
The purpose of the project is as mentioned above to develop animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs.

However there is a huge difference between production systems for sows, piglets and finishing pigs. This is also the case for calves and cows. Therefore separate indices are developed for the following subgroups of cattle and pigs.

  • Dairy cattle
  • Dairy calves
  • Sows and gilts
  • Farrowing sows
  • Piglets
  • Finishing pigs and weaners
The animal welfare indices will be transparent
It is important that animal welfare indices are:
  • Transparent. It should be easy to see how the indices are constructed and which measures of animal welfare are included. 
  • Valid. The indices should measure what they are aimed at – namely how good is the animal welfare. 
  • Practical usability. Collection of data used for the indices should not be too time-consuming or be too difficult. 
  • Robust. There should be a high level of consistency between data collected from different persons. 
  • Legal. The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration must have the legal rights to collect and use data to calculate the animal welfare indices.
  • Scientifically based. There should be scientific expert knowledge behind the choice of animal welfare measures used for the indices. This should also apply to constructing and calculating the indices.
How animal welfare is defined in the index project
A clear definition of animal welfare is necessary in order to weight the different animal welfare measures in the indices in relation to each other.

In this project the animal welfare is defined as the animal’s own experience in a given situation. It is thus the animal’s experience that decides whether its welfare is good or bad.

This definition of animal welfare is also used in “Welfare Quality”, which is the most reliable protocol for measuring animal welfare in farms that exists today (For further information look at the section, Animal welfare indices are compared with “Welfare Quality”)
Animal welfare measures in the indices
Measuring animal welfare is complex. A substantial part of the project was dedicated to selecting those exact measures that best describe the welfare of cattle and pigs.

The selection of measures is based on an extensive literature review and on expert opinions.  In addition most of the measures have been thoroughly tested on a number of farms.
Data can be collected for each measure included in the indices. An example is lameness in cows, where the data used to calculate indices would be the prevalence of lameness in cows in a random sample.

Two types of data are included in the indices.
  1. Primary data is data that is collected on farms (e.g. data that describe animal behavior or housing conditions). Because the primary data is collected for the purpose of being used in the animal welfare indices, it is generally more valid for measuring animal welfare compared with secondary data (see next paragraph). Unfortunately, primary data is relatively expensive, time-consuming and more difficult to collect.
  2. Secondary data is data obtained from existing databases (e.g. data collected in conjunction with inspections of slaughtered animals and meat from the slaughterhouses). This kind of data is desirable to use for the animal welfare indices, because it is relatively cheap and easily accessible. It is important to consider carefully whether secondary data is a good measure for animal welfare. If so, it will be an advantage to substitute some of the primary data with secondary data as it is both cheaper and easier to access. It is important to notice though, that secondary data has been collected with another purpose in mind than to measure animal welfare. This makes secondary data less valid than primary data.

Weighting of the animal welfare measures

Weighting the measures for animal welfare is a fundamental task in the development of animal welfare indices for cattle and pigs. In this project, experts perform the weighting of animal welfare measures. The group of experts includes Danish veterinarians, agricultural advisors, animal welfare inspectors and researchers within the field of animal welfare in cattle and pigs.

Each expert makes a weighting of the different measures included in the indices – e.g. lameness and body condition. Is it for instance worse for a cow to be lame or to be skinny, and if so how much worse is it? It is required of the experts that they answer this kind of questions.

When the different measures have been assigned their weighted scores, they will be combined in an index for animal welfare.

Data for indices collected on farms
The primary data, which are used for the development of the animal welfare indices, were collected on cattle and swine farms. The data was collected by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University. It was voluntary for the farms to participate.
The collection of data on selected farms was finished at the end of 2015.

Indices are compared with “Welfare Quality” during their development
Concurrent with the collection of primary data in farms, a “Welfare Quality” assessment of the animal welfare was made.

The “Welfare Quality” (WQ) protocol is very comprehensive and takes several hours to complete on a farm. In the index project WQ is used as a reference value for the animal welfare indices and thus the correlation between the indices and WQ is calculated.