Is animals’ fearfulness the most important aspect of stockmanship?

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Measures of animals’ responses to people measure only one component of stockmanship: the extent that animals are fearful of people. However, there may be other components of stockmanship that are more important for animal welfare. The stockperson can most obviously affect the welfare of animals through the way that routine animal care tasks, such as feeding, cleaning etc., are done. Despite growing recognition of its importance for good animal welfare, as well as good animal productivity, this component of stockmanship has been investigated scientifically and in detail in only a small number of studies. In one of the most comprehensive studies of stockmanship, Lensink et al. (2001) examined the role of stockmanship in affecting the health and productivity of veal calves on farms in France. Farmers were interviewed, and the researchers scored their attitudes to the animals, e.g. whether or not they believed that calves were sensitive to human contact, and their attitudes to the work routines, e.g. how important cleaning procedures were. The farms were also scored for cleanliness, and the performance of various management routines was noted. In addition, interactions between the farmers and the calves were observed, especially the extent that calves withdrew when the farmers approached, and the extent that the farmer engaged in positive interactions with the calves. Sizeable correlations between stockmanship variables and the production characteristics of the farm were noted. High producing units (i.e. those with high daily weight gains, good food conversion efficiencies, and low mortality) had healthier calves, tended to be cleaner, had crates disinfected by an external company, had Sunday evening feedings of the calves, and were run by farmers whose own parents had managed a veal unit. The cleanliness of the barns accounted for 19% of the variance between units in daily weight gain and 22% of the variance between units in feed efficiency. The health of the calves was correlated with the attitudes of the farmers, e.g. the more the farmer believed that calves were sensitive to human contact, and the more the farmer felt that cleaning was important, the better the health of the calves. The results show the importance of general stockmanship for the welfare and productivity of the calves, particularly as concerns the care taken in cleaning the facilities. However, the responses of the calves to the stockperson were relatively unimportant in explaining variation between farms in health and productivity of the calves once the effect of these other stockmanship variables were considered. This study clearly indicates that the quality of stockmanship cannot be adequately assessed by a few measures of animals’ behavioural responses to people.

Alternatives for welfare audits: have stockpeople followed a course in animal handling?

The way stockpeople handle animals is likely to be a reflection of long-held beliefs about how animals need to be handled and attitudes towards animals in general. The stockpeople’s general and specific attitudes to and belief about animals are discussed in Hemsworth and Coleman (1998). A considerable amount of innovative research has now shown that the way that stockpeople handle animals is a reflection of specific beliefs of the stockperson, and that altering these beliefs may be an effective means of improving the way animals are handled (Hemsworth and Coleman, 1998; Hemsworth, 2003). For example, Hemsworth et al. (2002) examined the effect of a ‘‘cognitive-behavioural intervention’’ on dairy farmers’ attitudes towards cows. The intervention clearly improved the attitude of the farmers towards dairy cattle, specifically reducing the belief that considerable force was needed to move dairy cows. Visits to the farms showed that these changes in beliefs resulted in a reduced use of aversive handling techniques, a reduced fearfulness of the cattle, and some evidence of improvement in milk yield. This study clearly shows the potential for such interventions to improve at least one component of stockmanship, and to improve both the welfare and the productivity of the cattle. A more cost-effective way of auditing stockmanship in on farm visits may, therefore, be to ask whether or not the stockperson has followed a suitable course!

Conclusions

From this brief discussion, we suggest that insufficient attention has been paid to the problem of assessing the reliability and the validity of the tests used to assess human– animal relationships within the specific context of on-farm welfare assessments or audits. The great variety and diversity of tests and measures used by different researchers makes it difficult to develop a standardised test that has solid backing in accumulated research. We have insufficient information to judge whether different measures are measuring the same thing, or whether different measures assess different aspects of the human–animal relationship. The reliability of the measures used is often low, even if statistically significant, and the level of reliability that will be considered adequate in on-farm assessment has not been determined. Appropriate cut-off points have not been established. The results of the measures can be affected by extraneous variables such as the clothing worn, the location of the test, etc., which reduces our confidence in both their validity and reliability. Animals’ responses to people are likely to reflect a mix of motivations, and we should not assume that the level of fear is the most important. Clearly more attention needs to be paid to standardising the tests used. The effects of stockmanship on animal welfare are too complex for the adequacy of stockmanship to be assessed by measures of animals’ responses to people, and there may be more cost-effective ways of assessing the quality of overall stockmanship.