Meat & Livestock News

Balancing Breeding and Welfare in Livestock Production

Cow Milk Industrial Automated Farm. Cows in the paddock with tags on the ears eat hay and rest

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a globally recognised expert on livestock handling and welfare, has identified genetics as a critical factor in many animal welfare issues.

In her observations from meat processing plants, Grandin has noted that the drive for larger livestock has led to unintended consequences, particularly in the legs and feet of cattle.

Grandin warns that the push for increased size in cattle, hogs, and broilers to yield more meat has come at the expense of other body parts. She has observed that today’s larger livestock are outgrowing handling equipment and that the quest for size can lead to health issues, including heart failure.

She draws parallels between current cattle leg deformities and similar issues seen in pigs decades ago, which were traced back to genetic selection for rapid weight gain.

In the poultry industry, the breeding of larger broilers has led to birds that cannot support their own weight, leading to leg problems, metabolic disorders, and a rise in heart attacks.

Grandin suggests that slight reductions in breast size could significantly improve welfare and mortality rates without sacrificing productivity.

The same principle applies to dairy cattle, where Grandin proposes breeding for longevity rather than maximum milk production.

She likens genetic selection in livestock to managing a national budget, where the economy (meat, milk, eggs), infrastructure (bones, skeleton, heart, reproduction), and military (immune system) must be balanced. Overemphasis on one aspect can lead to neglect of others.

Grandin advocates for an approach that seeks the optimum rather than the maximum in genetic selection. She cites the example of slightly reducing the breast size in chickens, which has shown to improve overall outcomes, as dead animals do not gain weight and have poor feed conversion.

Timing is also crucial in the food supply chain, with Grandin emphasising the importance of sending animals to slaughter when they are ready to avoid welfare issues like downers.

Grandin also stresses the need to address upstream problems on farms to improve welfare at slaughter facilities.

She has seen processing plants take measures such as paving yards with rubber to accommodate cattle with foot problems, but she insists that better breeding practices are the more effective solution.

In summary, Grandin’s message is clear: good welfare in meatpacking plants begins with breeding animals that are capable of mobility and health, and this requires a balanced approach to genetic selection.