Assessing animal welfare in a strictly synchronous production system: the mink case
Most on-farm welfare assessment systems have been developed for use in dairy and pig farms. These production systems are non-synchronous, in the sense that the same processes occur continuously throughout the year. Animal welfare during most or all phases of production may therefore be assessed at any time of the year, except for some effects of season. Many domesticated farm animals such as sheep, goats, deer and mink are seasonally synchronised in their production, in the same way as were their wild ancestors. A comprehensive welfare assessment system including animal-based indicators for these species must therefore take an entire production cycle into consideration. This can be illustrated by a welfare assessment protocol developed and tested by the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences (DIAS) for mink production. The DIAS concept is based on indicators from four sources: the system, the system's management, animal behaviour, and animal health. An advantage of seasonality is that the measurement of welfare indicators can be optimised and standardised in terms of age/season and sample size, making reliable results relatively cheap to obtain. Furthermore, there is ample time to plan the requisite interventions. A disadvantage of seasonality is that the entire herd may have been at risk when a welfare problem is disclosed by direct animal-based indicators; for example, the entire herd may have been exposed to a social grouping causing bite marks, which can be observed at pelting. Based on observation of the social grouping, this can be corrected before fighting and biting occurs. Based on observation of the bite marks, corrections are postponed until next season. Welfare assessment intended for decision support in a synchronous production system should therefore include a higher proportion of early indicators based on the system and management, in order to prevent the development of potential welfare problems involving the entire herd. The assessment of animal-based indicators may be relatively cheap and more reliable in synchronous production compared to non-synchronous production, and these indicators are therefore given high priority as they reflect the welfare resulting from the corrections made based on indirect system and management indicators.
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