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Role of Breeding and Genetics in the Welfare of Farm Animals

23 October 2012

Breeding for higher productivity may be associated with a deterioration in the welfare of farm animals but genetics can also contribute to solving issues such as aggression in pigs and laying hens, according to a recent review paper.

Dr Bas Rodenburg

Dr Simon Turner

Breeding and genetics has played and will continue to play an important role in the welfare of domestic animals, according to a paper published in the journal, Animal Frontiers.

Authors Dr Bas Rodenburg of the Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Dr Simon Turner of Scottish Agricultural College say that, if genetic selection focuses only on increasing production of dairy, meat and eggs, there is a clear risk of increasing welfare problems related to high production levels, such as mastitis in dairy cows and cardiovascular diseases in broilers.

They state that a wider perspective is needed that encompasses both production and welfare traits, even though welfare may not be a primary breeding goal of the selection scheme.

Here, they suggest, the genomics era could offer opportunities to collect more precise information on the biological impact of certain breeding decisions. This could help breeders to make more informed choices in their selection programmes. Genomic tools could also facilitate selection for complex behavioural and welfare traits, which are frequently impossible to measure on a large number of animals.

Once the genetic fingerprint for such complex phenotypes is available, these welfare issues could be addressed by targeted genomic selection approaches, according to Rodenburg and Turner.

In their review paper, they explore differences and similarities between and within domestic species, as well as the effects of breeding for increased productivity on animal welfare and how breeding can be used to improve welfare.

Using the examples of laying hens and pigs, Rodenburg and Turner demonstate that progress can be achieved using breeding techniques to reduce aggression.

Selection on social effects or genome-wide selection may ultimately avoid the need for routine phenotyping of aggressiveness, the authors state, making it more feasible to reduce the expression of this behaviour through selection.


Rodenburg T.B. and S.P. Turner. 2012. The role of breeding and genetics in the welfare of farm animals. Animal Frontiers, 2(3):16-21. doi: 10.2527/af.2012-0044

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October 2012

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