COLUMBUS, Ohio -- How producers verbally and physically handle their livestock can have a profound impact on animal behavior and performance. To get the most out of productivity in a nurturing environment, Ohio State University animal science researchers are launching animal welfare training programs that foster human-animal interaction.
The cognitive behavioral intervention training programs, which focus on Ohio's dairy and swine industries, are the result of collaboration between Ohio State's Department of Animal Sciences and Australia's Animal Welfare Science Centre, a joint organization with Australia's University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Victorian State Department of Primary Industries. The Centre is internationally recognized as a leading research and educational facility of animal welfare topics.
Australian researchers have used the animal welfare programs to train hundreds of producers in their own country, and are now working to implement the materials in Ohio. Animal welfare is the concept of minimizing emotional or physical suffering of animals in whatever capacity they are serving their purpose in society.
"Worldwide animal welfare research on dairy cattle, swine and poultry has clearly shown a relationship between human-animal interaction and animal behavior, animal performance and a quality product," said Naomi Botheras, an Ohio State University Extension animal welfare program specialist assisting in implementing the training programs in Ohio. "Everything from the ease of handling the animal, to differences in milk yield, egg production, and growth and reproduction rates, can be impacted by whether a producer exhibits positive or negative behavior toward the animal."
Negative behavior toward animals, such as shouting, making loud noises or heavy-handedness can stimulate fear in animals. Eventually the animal associates the presence of humans with fear. On the other hand, positive behavior, such as slow movements, talking rather than shouting and a light touch can calm animals and even boost performance.
"Studies have shown that by producers and stockpeople using positive behavior, dairy cattle increase their milk yield by 5 percent. For pigs, use of positive behavior results in the production of 1.6 more piglets per sow per year, as well as an average daily gain of 5 percent," said Botheras.
Maurice Eastridge, an OSU Extension dairy specialist, is helping to jumpstart a program called ProHand Dairy Cows that focuses on stockperson training in the dairy industry.
"The potential exists with industries in Ohio to not only improve the ease of handling animals, but to also increase milk yields with the implementation of this training program," said Eastridge, who also holds a partial research appointment with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC).
Steve Moeller, an OSU Extension swine specialist is helping to launch ProHand Pigs, a similar program for the swine industry.
"Traditional animal welfare approaches have been to observe the animal in a specific setting and then adjust or modify the environment to put that animal in a position of what is perceived to be enhanced welfare," said Moeller, who also holds a partial research appointment with the OARDC. "These training programs take it one step further by focusing on the human aspect. The data shows that employees who have the right attitudes and beliefs toward how they handle their animals translate into improved productivity. And we can use better performance and efficiency as a good indicator of the well-being of animals."
With ProHand Pigs, Moeller hopes to initially capture the top swine-producing entities and then follow through with the individual producer. ProHand Pigs adds another tool designed to enhance existing pork programs in the state, including the Pork Quality Assurance and Trucker Quality Assurance Programs offered through the Pork Check-Off funding by the National Pork Board. .
"If we can influence these top pork production entities in Ohio, we are targeting 2.5 million pigs that hit the market every year. That's 2 percent of the national average and 80 percent of the pigs in Ohio," said Moeller.
The fundamentals of both ProHand Dairy Cows and ProHand Pigs involve training those in the industry how to identify movements of different animal species and use that information in improving animal handling, as well as improve communication efforts between the handlers and animals. The multimedia training consists of computerized modules, and a myriad of reinforcement materials such as questionnaires, follow-up discussions, videos, posters, handouts and newsletters.
"There is a mentality with some producers that since they've grownup with animals or worked with animals all their lives that they don't need to be told how to interact with them," said Eastridge. "Just because you think you may know how to interact with them doesn't mean that all behaviors you use are positive. These training programs are meant to help alleviate the negative behaviors."
Both ProHand Dairy Cows and ProHand Pigs have already been implemented in some Ohio livestock industries and, so far, have been met with approval.
"Those in the industry are genuinely interested in the training programs and seem to appreciate what they offer, as well as understand the importance of incorporating animal welfare into their production practices," said Botheras.
Not only are the programs good for the animals, they are also good for producers. The training programs have seen success in Australia with three out of four participants showing an improvement in their attitudes and behavior within a month of completing the training.
"The programs have a positive impact on the attitudes of employees and employee and employer relations," said Eastridge. "Through improved attitudes and a better work environment, the programs improve job satisfaction, work motivation and overall stockperson performance, with benefits for labor retention."
Ohio State University's Department of Animal Sciences within the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and the University of Melbourne have been collaborating for over three years on animal welfare issues. Through education and outreach, Ohio State strives to lead the nation in animal welfare efforts.