Effects of Stockperson Behaviour on Animal Welfare and Productivity

Speaking at a recent Boehringer Animal Welfare Forum, Professor Paul Hemsworth, Director of the Animal Welfare Science Centre discussed human–animal interactions in livestock production. Charlotte Johnston, ThePoultrySite Editor, reports from the conference.
calendar icon 13 July 2011
clock icon 8 minute read

A stockperson's attitude and behaviour have significant effects on an animal's fear, welfare and productivity.

Professor Hemsworth and his colleague, Professor Grahame Coleman, from the Animal Welfare Science Centre focus their research on how these attitudes and behaviours affect animal welfare and subsequently productivity.

Capacity, willingness and opportunity all affect a stockpersons work performance, said Professor Hemsworth.

Capacity is knowledge and technical skills, whilst willingness is attitudes, motivation and work ethics. Opportunity refers to the opportunity to carry out the task – which is affected by work conditions, co-workers, time available etc.

Human-Animal Relationships

Human-animal relationships can be assessed by looking at each partner's perception of the other. Frequent and intense interactions between both parties will undoubtedly develop a relationship.

So an animal's perception of its relationship with humans can be studied by examining the behavioural and physiological response of the animal to humans. Similarly, the humans perception of this relationship is found by examining the behaviour and attitude of the human towards the animal.

Professor Hemsworth said that studies often focus on the animal's fear responses to humans because of the implications on welfare.

A model of human-animal interactions in livestock industries

Handling Studies

A combination of handling studies and field observations have been carried out, which provide significant insights into human-animal relationships, said Professor Hemsworth.

Assessing an animal's relationship is done through a variety of tests including:

  • Behavioural tests, such as response to flight distance: response to stationary human, response to moving human, response to actual handling. <
  • Physiological tests: such as heart rates and corticosteroid (stress) responses etc.

Results have shown a substantial variation in fear responses and stockperson behaviour between farms, said Professor Hemsworth.

Human behaviour eliciting certain animal responses may be defined as positive or negative.

Negative handling behaviour, such as slaps, hits, fast movements, shouting and noise will cause an increase in fear in the animal, resulting in avoidance, stress and handling difficulties.

Positive stockperson behaviours, such as pats, strokes, talking, hand resting on the back, slow and deliberate movements will reduce the animal’s level of fear of humans and result in animals which are less stressed and are easier to handle.

Professor Hemsworth's own studies, as well as more recent and past studies all show a strong correlation between negative stockperson behaviour and an increase in fear of humans.

These effects have been demonstrated in many farm animal species.

"Negative handling significantly increases an animal's cortisol response

Negative Handling: Fear and Stress

Research by Breurer et al. in 2003, looked at handling, fear and stress physiology in dairy cows.

Dairy cows were exposed to five minutes of handling a day, for five weeks. Some animals in the study were exposed to negative handling, whilst others received positive handling. To measure the cows fear and stress, avoidance of humans (flight distance), acute cortisol response (at five minutes after human exposure) and basal free cortisol concentrations (taken in the morning) were measured.

Animals exposed to positive handling had a much shorter flight distance, i.e. humans could get much closer to the animal before it withdrew.

As well as a shorter flight time, acute cortisol responses were significantly lower, compared animals that had received negative handling.

Interestingly, the research showed that negative handling of the dairy animals resulted in higher basal free cortisol concentrations the following morning, suggesting that the animals were significantly affected by the five minutes of negative handling received the day before.

A study of cortisol concentrations in gilts by Professor Hemsworth, saw that concentrations of basal plasma cortisol were lower in gilts handled positively, than in gilts handled negatively.

"Positive handling results in increased productivity"

Negative Handling: Animal Productivity

In growing pigs, research has shown that negative and inconsistent handling increases fear responses.

One study by Professor Hemsworth looks at growth rates in pigs. His study showed that the growth rate of positively handled pigs was 455g per day compared with only 404g in pigs negatively handled. The growth rates for inconsistently handled pigs was 420g per day.

In this situation, the growth rate was reduced due to the animals' stress response – cortisol concentrations were elevated in inconsistent and negatively handled pigs, said Professor Hemsworth.

A similar study was carried out in laying hens, looking at the effects of negative handling, i.e. sudden and unpredictable movements in front of the pens, and positive handling, i.e. an extra two minutes spent in front of the cages, and slow deliberate movements.

Hen time at the front of the cage was measured; less time at the front of cage was taken as avoidance of human contact. Stress responses and egg production were also measured. The results show that positive handling of birds means that the hens were keen to have increased human contact, i.e. they were less fearful, and they spent more time at the front of the cage.

Corticosterone stress levels were much higher in hens handled negatively than those positively handled.

Subsequently, egg production in the hens was eight per cent higher in hens that had a positive human-animal relationship.

The number of studies across species with strong correlations between stress and negative handling, leaves no doubt that negative handling evokes stress, affecting animal welfare and production, said Professor Hemsworth.

Negative Handling: Animal Health

As mentioned above, studies have shown that negative handling affects an animals fear of humans, leading to stress, which consequently affects health.

One study shows that socialised birds – those used to positive human contact and so were less fearful – had higher feed conversion efficiency. In this same study, birds that were less socialised (and, therefore, had more fear of humans) had more lesions and higher mortality, as well as overall poorer health.

Professor Hemsworth says this is due to the response of immune system, suppressing antibodies when an animal is stressed, leading to poor health.

A study on veal calves looked at average daily gain and mortality. Fast movements by stockpersons were negatively associated with daily liveweight gain. As well as this, negative behaviour was seen to increase mortality, although unit size was a large variable in this study.

Longer flight distances in dairy cattle, also have a positive correlation with lameness in dairy cattle. In a study of 36 dairy heifers, 48 per cent of heifers with a flight distance of 4.8 metres (to humans) were lame, and on average, milk yields were 1.3kg per day lower, than those with a shorter flight distance.

This compares with cows with a flight distance of 2.81 metres (i.e. they were less fearful), only six per cent of which showed signs of lameness.

On pasture-based systems, Professor Hemsworth said that lameness in dairy cows was affected by two significant factors: the condition of farm tracks and farmers' patience in the dairy, i.e. their behaviour towards cows.

Improving Human-Animal Relationships

Changing stockperson attitudes

Professor Hemsworth defined an attitude as something that affects our behaviour and although they are stable and resistant, attitudes are learned. They are shaped through direct and indirect experiences so attitudes can be changed.

Professor Hemsworth says to change stockperson behaviour, it is important to target attitudes as well.

Cognitive-behavioural training

Evidence from studies carried out by Professor Hemsworth and colleagues suggests that stockperson training can improve animal productivity and welfare.

To change the behaviour of stockpeople towards farm animals requires:

  • targeting the beliefs that underlie the behaviour
  • targeting the behaviour in question, and then
  • maintaining these changed beliefs and behaviours.

One study looked at the benefits of cognitive-behavioural training on dairy units. The key variables measured were stockperson attitudes, stockperson behaviour, fear of humans and animal productivity.

The study demonstrated that training significantly improved stockperson attitudes. Training also halved stockperson negative behaviour towards cattle. Whilst the fear responses of cows did not change much, the changes were small but significant, said Professor Hemsworth. Flight distance did not decrease but milk cortisol levels did often decline.

A second study looked at the effects of training on cow productivity at 94 dairy farms. After training, which targeted stockperson attitudes and behaviour, milk yield per cow increased, as did the protein and fat content of the milk produced.

Stockperson selection

Some studies by the Animal Welfare Science Centre, have looked at how the selection of a stockperson can improve animal welfare.

Measuring stockperson characteristics prior to employment may give employers an idea of stockperson's attitudes and consequently, behaviour towards animals.

Concluding, Professor Hemsworth said that the role of a stockperson in animal welfare and productivity should not be underestimated. The studies in this article are just a few of the many that have been carried out. The outcomes highlight how important the role of the stockperson is in developing positive human animal relationships, and consequently improving animal welfare and productivity.

July 2011

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