Measuring and valuing: Animal welfare

  • 26.07.2023
  • article
  • Animal Welfare
  • Global Farm Metric
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • Megan Perry

How can measuring sustainability help us to understand and value the produce and services that farmers deliver? In this series, we explore the role of metrics in transitioning to a more sustainable food and farming system, and we meet some of the people who are leading the way. Here, Megan Perry, Head of Policy and Campaigns for the Sustainable Food Trust, explains some of the complexities for both farmers and customers when it comes to animal welfare, and we meet farmer and bestselling author, Rosamund Young, who shares her experience from Kite’s Nest farm in the Cotswolds.

When making food choices, animal welfare is generally listed as one of the leading concerns for the public. This is reflected in the increase of interest in meat with more ethical credentials, including pasture-fed, local and organic. A significant shift towards meat-free diets has also been, in part, driven by concern for the welfare of animals in the food industry.

However, research suggests that, despite the majority of people feeling concerned for the welfare of farmed animals, more immediate issues such as time pressures and finances, often dictate choices. While animal welfare is an issue many care deeply about when asked, it can be easy to lose sight of these concerns when standing in the supermarket aisle. The confusion around labelling and advertising creates a feeling of mistrust amongst customers who find it hard to identify the true quality of what they are buying. The anonymous and centralised nature of the supermarket meat supply chain further serves to weaken customers connection to the origin of the meat they are buying and their understanding of how it has been produced. Clearer labelling, a more transparent supply chain and better access to local meat could go a long way to supporting people in making better choices for animal welfare.

Animal welfare is not just a concern at the consumer end of the supply chain. The majority of livestock farmers care deeply about their animals and want them to have a good quality of life. Furthermore, good animal welfare is important in improving farm sustainability as it impacts productivity and meat quality, whilst also reducing risk to the farmer from disease or injury in livestock. However, while some aspects of animal welfare are easy to understand and measure, other aspects can be subjective and contested. There are also cases where trade-offs may occur between animal welfare and environmental sustainability, productivity, resource efficiency or other important considerations. This is why it is so important to take a holistic approach to farm assessments, as the Global Farm Metric (GFM) seeks to do.

The Global Farm Metric wheel

So how can we measure animal welfare? The UK has long been a leader in this area, developing the ‘Five Freedoms’ in 1965 which went on to be adopted by veterinarians, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the RSPCA. These freedoms form the basis of our understanding of animal welfare:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviours
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

These ‘Five Freedoms’ inform most animal welfare assessments. Within the Global Farm Metric, livestock is included as one of the 12 categories. Welfare indicators include mortality, productive longevity and fertility level of the animals, with questions about housing, diet, regularity of checks on animals, use of antibiotics and other medications, frequency of lameness and illness and the degree to which animals are able to express their natural behaviours. In some cases, the quality of life for an animal can be hard to judge, and in these instances the GFM assesses practices instead of, or as well as, outcomes.

However, it is important to remember that welfare does not end at the farm gate and that animals should be afforded as good a life as possible, from birth until death. The distance to an abattoir, conditions in transit and treatment at the slaughterhouse, should all be key considerations when assessing overall welfare. In the UK, cattle and sheep can travel for as much as 21 hours. The decline of the small abattoir network across the UK has resulted in some farmers having to travel much further to take animals to slaughter, with big impacts on welfare, cost and the environment. In order to ensure high welfare for livestock, not just on farm but also during transit and slaughter, we need a thriving network of small and local abattoirs across the UK, and on-farm or mobile slaughter units should be considered as part of the solution.

So how can all of this information be conveyed to the consumer? With so many welfare-related labels – from RSPCA Assured to ‘free range’ – there needs to be a more integrated approach to both the collection of the data that inform these labels and the presentation of this information to consumers.

However, any resulting label that is limited to just animal welfare misses the opportunity to convey a whole-system perspective on sustainability to the consumer, which is vital in enabling informed purchasing decisions and harnessing consumer power. At the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), we want to see the creation of an integrated label that covers all the environmental and welfare impacts of production and is based on data acquired transparently and fairly across the sector.


Rosamund Young: Three questions on animal welfare

Rosamund Young runs Kite’s Nest Farm on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, alongside her partner and brother. She is also the bestselling author of The Secret Life of Cows. The farm produces beef and lamb from 100% organic, grass-fed animals, which are treated with the highest regard for their welfare. Here, Rosamund shares her take on what constitutes good animal welfare and how they put principles into practice at Kite’s Nest.

Rosamund Young

Could you tell us about your farm and how you manage your livestock to ensure they have the highest possible welfare?

We have a fully organic, Pasture for Life herd of around 100 cattle, all single suckled and living in family groups. We also have a flock of 100 ewes.

We never forcibly wean any offspring and always ensure that mothers either live with or often see previous offspring and other family members, and that all animals have a choice of grazing and browsing, access to shade and shelter and more than one source of water. The preponderance of mature animals in all the groups ensures that immunity to parasitic worms is achieved effectively and living with familiar companions minimises stress.

What do you think are the best indicators of good animal welfare? What do you look for in your animals and how do you evaluate and measure these indicators?

Constant observation is the key and enables changes to be noticed early. All people and farm livestock look how they are. One can tell from the face alone if any are unwell, and also when they are recovering. Cleanliness and glossy coats, bright eyes and general demeanour tells us a lot.

Many farmers weigh their animals often, sheep in particular, as weight loss is believed to indicate parasite presence. We do weigh our lambs and use this information not only to evaluate when they are fit to be slaughtered, but also to determine if anything may be preventing them from gaining a healthy weight. We try to make the process of weighing them easy, so they become accustomed to it and not afraid. With cattle, we would resist any advice to weigh them as they are less easy to train and would become stressed if forced to come in and stop grazing – that would be counter-productive. We haven’t treated a single bovine for more than 42 years because as we leave them in family groups, the preponderance of adults ensures that the youngsters get immunity from the elders.

Any animal that separates itself from the herd or flock is investigated immediately and any injured animal is isolated from the majority to prevent bullying but is, wherever possible, kept with a close relative or friend to prevent loneliness.

How can we best communicate the value of high animal welfare in farm animals, to the consumer?

The concept of high animal welfare is difficult to describe to anyone who does not already understand. We have retailed meat for 40 years and this knowledge has become apparent via the taste of unstressed meat. Inviting people to accompany us to meet the livestock is very effective; it is time-consuming yet necessary.

What is required for an animal to have a good life and a good death?

A good life and a good death is a subjective concept, but within the limits of what humans can achieve and within the constraints of often ill-conceived and profit-oriented legislation, only constant and devoted attention from farmers can effect something approaching this mythical objective. Yet, however unattainable, it is likely that farm livestock, cared for by sympathetic and knowledgeable farmers, could well have better lives and deaths than most people.


To find out more about the Global Farm Metric, click here.

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