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Animal Welfare Must Be Top Priority

January 23, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery farmer or rancher I know does the best they can by their animals. Despite this, sometimes animals get sick, or die, or something happens that you wish you’d seen earlier or done differently. Yet among my peers – be it rabbit or poultry or cattle or any other species, the comfort and care of our animals is beyond just what has to be done. It’s always asking “how can we do better?”

Last night’s Twitter #AgChat on animal welfare made it clear that no matter the species, most do the best we can by our animals. This is true whether an outdoor based program like ours or a controversial one like hog confinement systems that keep sows from fighting. And we’re always learning, striving to do better.

In rabbits we’re somewhat paving the way with ideas. Some are taken from other species, such as the mister systems used to keep our rabbits cool in the hot summers. Some are unique, such as a specially designed barn and some movable outdoor pens we can’t wait to implement. If it works, it might just change things for many farmers beyond our little place…we can hope!

Some things can directly influence food safety. We’re looking at salmonella vaccinations for laying birds to further decrease the chances of a problem in our eggs, and increase the health of our birds. We’re already tested and listed with the NPIP program, where random birds are tested each year. This restricts us to purchase replacements only from NPIP tested sources. All of our turkeys and chickens come under this umbrella.

We strive to keep temperatures in hand – providing windbreaks and dry areas for the birds to be when weather is bad. Each species needs different management – day old chicks need 95 degree heat which can kill rabbits! Making this happen on a diversified farm can be a bit like a puzzle, a random chaos in a way.

In days gone by some talk of harvesting corn and turning cattle in the fields. Cattle are not picky in what they eat – stalk, leaves, corn, cobs and all, but they aren’t delicate about it. Much was wasted, knocked on the ground. Pigs then gleaned the fields, making use of that downed material and working to eliminate ‘volunteer’ seed the following year. Some might have used poultry to further find corn and seed grain in the field. Although times have changed, we can mimic this somewhat by letting chickens ‘clean up’ garden areas at the end of the season. We might have sheep follow cattle in the pasture, then poultry follow the sheep.

Or for biosecurity we may keep animals in a barn for part/all of the year. Hogs can be tough on the land, and were moved to dry lots for that reason. In time, cement lots were used then to make temperatures easier to handle, enclosed barns to be able to heat and cool it for hog comfort. Chickens, too, followed this especially in the north part of the country where it’s bitter cold and snowy now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARabbits can handle cold, as can cattle, but benefit from windbreaks and dry places to sleep. As we move forward, we encourage questions about what we’re doing for animal welfare on our place. We monitor condition, and (as Connor has learned) it doesn’t hurt to put hands on an animal and FEEL if they’re really in good shape or is fur hiding something. While we don’t want breeding stock FAT, we also don’t want to feel a prominent backbone or hips. Sometimes after raising a couple of big litters a doe might lose condition. This can happen, but it’s important to respond to it.

An example is a doe of Connor’s – she’d weaned two nice litters and is one of the keepers – a mama who gives much to her offspring. So much so her coat began getting ragged, she’d lost a little weight. She’s had the winter off to bump her condition up, and now has regained weight, has a healthy coat and is ready to have another nice litter of babies!

Animal welfare is important – it’s what gets us up on holidays and weekends and limits vacations and time away because they need time and attention no matter what day it is. It’s just the right thing to do.

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