NC1029: Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

NC1029: Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare

Duration: 10/01/2016 to 09/30/2021

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

There is widespread public concern regarding animal welfare in the US. Evidence for this concern, and how it affects the long-term sustainability of animal use, is apparent in numerous stakeholder initiatives addressing this issue. For example, among these initiatives, there is widespread support for the idea that decisions about welfare should be based on scientific evidence. Indeed, other stakeholders, such as agricultural universities, also recognize that standards of care of agricultural animals should be based on science. The US standards of care for agricultural animals used in research and teaching (The Ag Guide), is informed and revised every 10 years to reflect the latest research in this area. Animal welfare also plays a critical role in world trade as evidenced by the recent establishment of global animal welfare standards on transport and slaughter by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The OIE continues the development of standards and recommendations in new areas of importance to animal welfare and it is important that these standards be based on scientific evidence.

Through NC-1029, we have established a national scientific committee to generate and disseminate objective scientific information on animal welfare issues. This committee is comprised of approximately 20 scientists working in multiple disciplines at different locations throughout North America. Our research is critical to provide the science and technology to help stakeholders make informed decisions about standards of animal care.

Related, Current and Previous Work

The proposed 2016-2021 version of NC1029 builds on our 10 years of previous work in the area. There are several other multi-state projects working in related, but different areas. NE-1042 (Poultry production systems: optimization of production and welfare using physiological, behavioral and physical assessments) investigates production systems in only one species, whereas our project will emphasize both the discipline of animal behavior as well as other livestock. W2173 (Impacts of Stress Factors on Performance, Health, and Well-Being of Farm Animals) also addresses aspects of animal welfare, but their focus is more on management practices rather than specifically measuring behavior or about application of this information in animal welfare assessment programs.

Over the last 5 years, the field of animal welfare continues to grow. There is considerable media attention on practices such as using cages for laying hens and tail docking dairy cattle. The role of scientists in the societal discussion of how to best treat agricultural animals is considerable (Mench, 2008). There are several areas where these contributions are particularly notable: proliferation of precision farming or automated measurement of animal responses, additional novel indicators and new applications of existing animal welfare measures, and the rigor and scope of on-farm welfare assessment.

Automated measurement of animal responses

As livestock and poultry industries shift to housing animals in larger social groups and more complex environments, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor individual animals. Yet, in order to assess welfare, it is essential we understand the response of individuals to systems as welfare is a characteristic of an individual animal, not of a group. Conducting direct observations of animal behavior or intensive monitoring of animal health is time consuming and requires trained, highly skilled employees. Furthermore, when large numbers of nearly identical looking animals are housed together in a large group, it becomes nearly impossible to visually observe all members of the group and to recognize them as individuals. Advances in technology, both in sensors that are wearable by animals and in equipment that allows us to measure environmental characteristics at the level of the animal itself may be a way to overcome these challenges and provide a means to track animals over a period of time. In addition, historically, environmental control has been based on a classical engineering approach to technology, specifically for providing optimal thermal comfort based on a set point condition or controlling lighting or feeding on a set schedule. This prescriptive approach to animal housing and husbandry resulted in the ability to increase the scale and intensity of animal production. One deficiency in this approach is that it focuses only on one or two main environmental parameters and neglects other potentially relevant ones. Another deficiency in this approach is that it takes a one-size-fits all approach to the needs of the animals under a given set of conditions. Advances in technology are moving quickly toward viable on-farm capabilities to offer real-time status inputs of individuals or groups of animals, which has the potential to offer a new approach to animal management.

Body-worn sensors for recording physiological variables such as heart rate, body temperature, and respiration rate have been developed (Brown-Brandl et al., 2003; Eigenberg et al., 2007), and other types of body-mounted sensors, including pedometers, active transponders, accelerometers, and position detectors, provide additional information about animal behavior (Brehme et al., 2007; Müller and Schrader, 2003; Pépin et al., 2006; Scheibe et al., 1998). Small wireless body-worn sensors capable of detecting general levels of activity, specific behavior and location of hens relative to other hens as well as ambient and skin temperatures have been developed and validated at Michigan State University (Quwaider et al., 2010; Banerjee et al., 2012, 2014; Daigle et al., 2012, 2014). Such systems represent an approach to detecting specific information about the behavior and physiology of individual animals while linking this to the environmental context. Developments in precision agriculture, as in the dairy industry, have resulted in a proliferation of commercially available sensors and systems for capturing information at the level of the individual animal. These sensors typically record activity of the animals as well as rumination and lying time and have been correlated with visual assessments of these behaviors (Schirmann et al., 2009; Ledgerwood et al., 2010; Elischer et al., 2013; Bikker et al., 2014). However, at present, many producers and researchers do not yet take full advantage of these data, although some research has shown that there is a relationship between behaviors recorded by these sensors and dairy cattle health (e.g., Liboreiro et al, 2015).

Additional novel indicators and new applications of existing of animal welfare measures

In addition to automated measures, work is needed to identify other indicators of animal welfare and to explore existing indicators in a wider range of situations. Promising novel parameters include deepening our understanding of sleep, disease and immunity, genetic influences on temperament and behavioral characteristics, as well as the long-term impacts of painful procedures on wound healing and animal welfare.

The amount of time that cows spend lying down and resting has become a key indicator of ‘cow comfort’. Lying is clearly important to cows, as those with restricted opportunities to lie down exhibited both physiological and behavioral signs of stress (Munksgaard and Simonsen, 1996; Cooper et al., 2008), and cows strive to attain a fixed amount of lying time even at the expense of feeding and social behavior (Munksgaard et al., 2005). Although high lying time can provide information about the quantity of an animal’s rest, the link between lying time and rest quality is unclear. Moreover, high lying time may also reflect poor welfare, such as lameness (Ito et al., 2010), making it problematic as a direct indicator of animal welfare. In other species like humans and laboratory animals, sleep is considered the most direct measurement of rest quality, and has long been considered imperative for health and well-being. Over the past 50 years, scientists have provided compelling evidence that even acute sleep loss can cause detrimental changes in the immune system and metabolism that increase the risk of harmful disease in humans (reviewed by Opp, 2009). Several epidemiological studies have identified sleep loss as a risk factor of mortality (Grandner et al., 2010), diabetes (Gottlieb et al., 2005), cardiovascular disease (Sabanayagam and Shankar, 2010) and the common cold (Cohen et al., 2009). Despite the clear relationship between sleep loss and health in humans and laboratory animals, no research to our knowledge, has attempted to determine the effect of sleep loss on cow health and productivity.

In addition to understanding the impact of sleep on immunity and health of food animals, there is also a need to better understand how stressors impact immunity and disease risk. For example, social stressors are thought to be important in terms of an individuals’ risk for disease (Chebel et al., 2016; Proudfoot and Habing, 2015), but this topic has received relatively little attention. More research is needed to determine behavioral and physiological (e.g., immune) outcomes of social stressors, and additive effects of multiple stressors on clinical disease risk.

Some situations or management decisions, such as the effect of breed or strain on welfare indicators- novel and existing- is known to be important (e.g., more keel bone damage in aviary-housed hens compared to those housed in cages as per Wilkins et al., 2011 or white hens showing more preference to roost at height compared to brown hens as per Ali et al., in revision), but has been largely unexplored in others. Animals of different breeds or genetic strains show heritable differences in temperament and behavioral characteristics, such as activity patterns and use of resources. For example laying hens selected for high levels of production and feed efficiency are less active and show less foraging behavior than hens of other strains (Braastad and Katle, 1989; Schütz and Jensen, 2001; Schütz et al., 2001). As alternative housing systems are developed for livestock and poultry that simultaneously provide animals more resources for fulfilling behavioral motivation along with more space and larger social groups, it will be important to determine whether all breeds are equally suitable for certain configurations or associated management regimes. For example, laying hen producers are transitioning to enriched colony cages and aviary systems that house hens in large groups and provide them with resource such as perches, nest boxes and litter (Lay et al., 2011). How these resources are presented within each system and the configuration of each resource itself (e.g., round or rectangular perch shapes) varies considerably between manufacturers. Yet, there has been little research on how the various laying hen strains used in North America adapt to specific aspects of the housing environment (Ali et al., in revision).

The welfare implications of other aspects of animal management remain unexplored. For example, established welfare indicators of pain have been used to evaluate pain associated with procedures such as disbudding or castrating cattle immediately after these procedures (Coetzee, 2011, Stafford and Mellor, 2011), but much less is known about how the long these wounds take to heal, nor if they remain painful during this process. Recent work with hot-iron branding indicates that these wounds take at least 10 weeks to heal and are more sensitive than unbranded tissue during this time (Tucker et al., 2014).

On-farm welfare assessment

Agricultural sectors have developed on-farm care standards and verify compliance with these standards through assessment or audits. In the US, participation in these programs is widespread: it is estimated that 98% of the nation’s beef and pork are slaughtered in plants participating in the North American Meat Institute Audit, 90% of eggs produced in the US are certified under the United Egg Producer’s audit, 80% of dairy farms engage in the National Milk Producer’s Federation Farmers Assuring Responsible Management program, and finally, the goal of the Common Swine Industry Audit is to eventually reach all pork producers. There are several challenges faced by these types of programs. For existing programs, there are questions about the appropriateness of methods used to gather information on farms as well as the key variables to include for identifying compromised animal welfare. There is also demand for development of such programs for other species, sectors or housing, namely ducks, cage-free egg production and veal calves.

In some existing audits or assessments, we have made progress in determining the appropriate variables to include and the appropriate number of animals to sample. For example, with dairy cattle, it is widely accepted that lameness is a key animal welfare concern and that 30%+ of the lactating pen must be scored to generate an accurate estimate for a given farm (Endres et al., 2014). However, more information is needed about the risk factors for problems such as lameness, thus while epidemiological work and benchmarking has been conducted under some conditions (e.g., freestalls in California and North East, Chapinal et al., 2012 and Midwest, Espejo et al., 2006 and Espejo and Endres, 2007), additional research is needed to cover a wider range of geographic areas (e.g., South East) and for all of the variables included in such assessments (e.g., risk factors or acceptable levels for cattle dirtiness has not been well studied from an epidemiological perspective). Similarly, questions around appropriate sampling (e.g., how many and how to chose which animals to measure) remain. For example, the transect walk method for evaluating the welfare status of birds in commercial poultry flocks was developed by Prof. Estevez and colleagues, and has been shown to have great promise in initial evaluations conducted on broiler (Marchewka et al., 2013) and turkey (Marchewka et al., 2015) farms. Further work is needed to test this method further with turkeys and with previously unstudied species such as ducks.

In addition, as existing audits and assessments have become more widely used, there has been growing awareness of compromised animals on commercial farms. In the case of pork production, this has created demand for better ways to both identify compromised animals as well as decision criteria for euthanasia (Morrow et al., 2006; Ontario Farm Animal Council, 2010). In the case of dairy cattle, it has created demand for improved technology to identify at-risk animals earlier, thus limiting suffering and improving opportunities for successful intervention. (Schirmann et al., 2009; Bikker et al., 2014).

Other species have received relatively little attention from an animal welfare assessment/audit perspective, namely cage-free egg production, veal calves and ducks.

Eggs. Many US producers are moving from housing hens in conventional cages to keeping them in cage-free systems due to increasing demand for cage-free eggs (Scheier, 2016). However, very little is known about the prevalence of welfare problems in commercial cage-free laying hen flocks in the US (Lay et al., 2011) although some work has been conducted in Europe (Rodenburg et al., 2005; Tauson, 2005; Tactacan et al., 2005). As with dairy cattle above, information is needed in terms of prevalence of common problems (benchmarking) and epidemiological work identifying risk factors for key animal welfare concerns.

Veal. A high disease risk throughout the growing period and the ability to perform natural behaviors are both considered main animal welfare concerns in the veal industry (Bokkers and Koene, 2001; Pardon et al., 2015). A key predictor of calf disease in both the dairy and the veal industry is failure of passive transfer (FPT) of maternal antibodies through colostrum (Windeyer et al., 2014; Pardon et al., 2015). Failure of passive transfer is a major area of research in the dairy industry for young heifer calves, but has been very understudied for bull calves. In the US, veal calves are born on dairy farms and sold through auction, often leading to long transport times, irregular feeding schedules, and no record of the quality and quantity of colostrum fed to support their passive immunity. Despite the clear animal health and welfare concerns associated with these practices, little research has focused on improving the quality of life of these young calves. Indeed, little is known about the incidence of these welfare problems, nor the appropriateness or feasibility of measuring them.

Ducks. There has been no peer-reviewed research published comparing or comprehensively evaluate the accuracy of methods or programs used to assess the welfare of commercial ducks. Published research pertaining to commercial duck welfare has instead focused largely on comparing provided resources, such as mode of water provision (e.g., O’Driscoll et al., 2011) or flooring type (e.g., Karcher et al., 2013).



  1. To develop novel behavioral and physiological indicators of animal welfare.
    Comments: There is a need to develop novel, preferably non-invasive techniques, to measure animal welfare. Both behavior and physiology can be used as indicators of welfare, and can provide critical and timely information in regards to how an animal is coping, adapting or not coping to a particular set of circumstances.
  2. To strengthen the scientific basis of animal welfare assessment and auditing programs.
    Comments: Many animal welfare assessment/certification and third party auditing programs have been introduced in the US in recent years. However, relatively little is known about the robustness of these programs’ ability to measure animal welfare, particularly in terms of sampling decisions, repeatability and feasibility of measures within an assessment framework. The appropriateness of when and how to use measures within the 3 broad categories (resource-, outcome- and protocol-based) needs also to be investigated. The protocols for these two areas of research will be carried out at multiple institutions and the outcomes will elucidate the validity of measures across different environments and genotypes of agricultural animals.


Objective 1

 A number of projects will be conducted to address this objective, including the development and validation of automated methods for measuring welfare, including disease and response to housing and management practices in poultry and cattle. Other novel measures include sleep in cattle, aspects of immune function and disease in chickens, cattle and pigs and aspects of social behavior in pigs and cattle. Additional projects to the ones described in this outline will be developed within the next five years.

Development and validation of automated methods for measuring welfare of individual animals

In poultry. A sensor system for laying hens under development at Michigan State University detects the performance of key behaviors performed by poultry including dust bathing, feeding, walking and jumping down from perches. Data collected from such sensors will be integrated with data from other hens and house-level information about air quality, temperature, or even feed consumption. Integrated multi-modal data such as this will provide robust information that can be used to monitor the welfare of individual birds. In addition to understanding use of key resources in alternative housing for laying hens, newer housing systems, including conventional cage systems with lower bird densities, floor systems, vertical aviaries and various free range systems, present their own unique challenges to both design and management for balancing a comfortable environment and energy efficiency. Specifically, atmospheric ammonia is known to be a significant challenge to control, and elevated concentrations have been linked to decreases in health and production. University of Illinois will address a gap in scientific knowledge by using technology to address questions about concentrations and durations of ammonia exposure result in challenges for hens, which could be evidenced by biological or behavioral changes. Finally, Texas A&M University will compare the use of thermal imaging to detect and quantify lameness to traditional methods such as gait and lesion scoring. Broilers of different ages and weights will be assessed under research conditions as well as on-farm. The aim of this research is to provide a tool that can be used for lameness monitoring and rapid determination.

In cattle. A recent review (Rutten et al., 2013) summarized 126 dairy cow studies on sensors worn by individual cows. Most of those studies were focused on mastitis and fertility, with limited work on transition cow health. University of Kentucky, Washington State University and University of Minnesota will investigate the use of sensors to identify cows at risk for health disorders, especially during early lactation when a large percentage of cows die or are culled (Shahid et al, 2015), resulting in economic loss for the dairy industry and representing a serious welfare problem. In addition, feeding behavior collected from automated calf feeder software will also be evaluated by University of Florida and University of Minnesota as a predictor for disease and to investigate response to stressors (including competition, changing group dynamics, painful procedures and illness). The sensors used by these stations are often either already developed, but have not been tested for welfare assessment, or are under development currently.


In cattle. Dairy cows have a high potential for producing milk, yet many cows are unable to cope with intensive housing and succumb to disease thus significantly reducing both productivity and welfare. Sensitive indicators of how animals cope with their environments are critically needed. High lying time is used as an indicator of good welfare, but is also associated with lameness, making it problematic as a direct measurement of welfare. A promising new method for measuring an animal’s ability to cope is to determine the amount of sleep they are able to obtain. The Ohio State University, University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky will evaluate the effect of modest sleep loss on immune function, metabolism and milk production. Cows will be fitted with an EEG specially designed to record sleep in cattle to provide a ‘gold standard’ of sleep duration. Each cow will also be fitted with a cost-effective and non-invasive sleep monitor that is in the process of being validated. Results of this work will be used for multiple large-scale follow-up experiments investigating the impact of various housing systems (e.g., free stalls vs. bedded packs) and management practices (e.g., milking frequency, stocking density) on sleep loss in cattle.

Disease and immune function

Multiple stressors. Agricultural animals often face several stressors at the same time. For example, beef cattle may be both castrated and branded in single event or weaned and transported on the same day. Although multiple stressors are common, they are rarely explored in experiments with agricultural animals. In this project, Universities of Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and Ohio State will conduct studies examining the cumulative effects of multiple stressors on immune function and disease.

The Universities of Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and The Ohio State University will evaluate the impact of physiological adaptations to the multiple stresses on immune function in cattle. For example, work by Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio stations will evaluate inflammatory reactivity (SAA and Hp response), cell-mediation response and humoral production. By examining components of the immune system, these stations can develop a more comprehensive view of how the combined effects of multiple stressors can affect immune function. They will use this approach to evaluate numerous and often cumulative stressors, such as heat stress, poorly formulated diets, and insufficient feed availability or physical space. This information will be useful in order to provide commercially-relevant assessment of the behavior and welfare of dairy cows.

In sheep (Ohio), behavioral measures including abnormal oral behavior and activity level, as well as physiological measures including serum and fecal cortisol and response to parasite load will be measured during weaning. Weaning can be an extremely stressful event in a lamb’s life because it involves modification to its nutrition and feeding habits as well as changes to its social and physical environment (Lansade et al., 2004). Multiple stressors will be examined via the role of a mature ewe in this process.

Specific diseases: lameness. Lameness associated with painful joint lesions has been identified as a welfare challenge for confined sows (Elmore et al., 2010). Feet and leg problems were identified as the most common involuntary reason for culling sows (Stalder et al., 2003) and are associated with several variables that result in poor reproductive performance including decreased litter size, poor farrowing performance, and decreased sow longevity. The Ohio State and Iowa State Universities will assess the effects of rubber mats on reproductive performance, non-infectious lameness severity and recovery, feed intake, pain sensitivity and behavior of lame and non-lame sows during farrowing and lactation.


Social or indirect effects. Social genetic effects contribute a large proportion of the genetic variance in pig growth rate. By incorporating selection for social effects into breeding programs pigs better suited to group living could result. These pigs would experience improved welfare via less aggression, injury and stress related to negative social behaviors. However, the basis for this type of selection program, a link between social behavior and molecular genotypes, has received only limited attention in pigs. No studies have yet examined whether favorable social behaviors are heritable and could be selected for as another avenue to minimize aggression and facilitate social living. In ongoing work at Michigan State University, social behaviors of pigs at mixing and under more stable social conditions will be examined and paired with genotype information. The goal of this work is to identify novel molecular genetic markers that would facilitate incorporating social behavior into selection paradigms to improve sow welfare and lifetime productivity in group housing systems.

Strain differences. Research at Michigan State University and Texas A&M University is currently examining how different poultry strains behave in different housing systems or conditions. This body of information is needed by producers to match strains with their ideal housing type to sustainably implement alternative housing, best management practices and to provide scientific evidence of improved poultry welfare to consumers. In addition, The University of Maryland is developing novel techniques to evaluate peripheral indicators of neuroendocrine status to provide insight into the animal’s health and welfare status. Neuroendocrine metabolism and secretion in 6 different species will be evaluated to assess normal flora in the broiler chicken. This research can then be applied as a novel measure to assess the impact of multiple stressors on gut flora in broilers.

Pain assessment

Pharmaceuticals are a powerful tool in the assessment of pain as they manipulate the subjective experience of the animal. In agricultural species, the most common agents used are local anesthetics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), likely because these are relatively practical options to mitigate pain associated with procedures or injury. At the University of California, two novel approaches will be used to evaluate pain in agricultural animals, both using pharmaceuticals. In cattle, disbudding or prevention of horn growth is widely accepted to be painful in the 48 hours after the procedure. However, little is known about how long this pain lasts beyond this point. Calves will be disbudded and given NSAIDs at various points throughout the healing process. Pain will be evaluated through both evoked (e.g., mechanical stimulation of the wound) and spontaneous responses. In ducks, the route of administration and dose of NSAIDs required to alleviate the pain associated with lameness will also be examined, as this is poorly understood. Pain relief effectiveness will be evaluated using novel treadmill and gait scoring techniques.

Social behavior

In pigs. Gestation sow housing, in particular individual stalls, continues to be a controversial and highly debated topic in the United States as it relates to sow welfare. Individually housing gestating sows can maximize individual care and production, however, restricted movement as a result of this environment may result in both abnormal behavior development and decreased performance. Likewise, group housing may allow sows more freedom for movement but aggressive interactions can result in severe injury to less dominant individuals. Although both facility designs have advantages and disadvantages for the welfare of the sow, larger swine producers are transitioning to group gestation housing system as a result of legislative action or retailer pressure. However, to date, limited research is available to optimize social housing environments of group housed sows and provide proper management and feeding regimens. The Ohio State University and Iowa State University will evaluate feeding patterns and social behaviors of a sow herd transitioning from individually housed stalls to group housing to optimize facility design to improve feed efficiency and production.

In cattle. Despite decades of nutritional and epidemiological research, dairy cows remain at high risk of disease after giving birth (USDA, 2008). A main gap in knowledge is about the optimal social housing environment for these vulnerable animals, which would require a fundamental understanding of cow behavior and preferences at calving. When kept on range, cows will leave the herd to find a secluded environment to give birth (Lidfors et al., 1994). This preference is retained in indoor-housed cows housed individually (Proudfoot et al., 2014a,b); yet, many cows in the US are kept in high-density groups at calving, with limited ability to hide from other cows. The Ohio State University and University of Tennessee will determine the detailed calving behavior of cows kept on pasture, including their preference for visual seclusion and distance from herd mates. They will also determine if high stocking density in an indoor group pen increases stress and restricts natural calving behavior and if the provision of a visual hide in an indoor pen can reduce stress and facilitate more natural calving behaviors. In this way, hiding, one type of social behavior, is used as a novel cattle welfare measure.

In dairy calves, social housing is currently gaining in popularity. While early social contact provides a number of benefits related to social development (Costa et al., 2016), it creates the potential for competition for access to feed and other social stressors. The University of Florida will investigate the development of social behavior, including social interactions and synchronized feeding, in relation to different group social dynamics, such as group size, age range, and degree of competition for access to feed. The balance of affiliative and agonistic behaviors in the group will provide an indication of welfare of calves in different social housing environments. Further, changes in social behavior may provide an indication of individual responses to acute stressors, such as weaning and housing transitions, as well as disease.


Objective 2

This objective will be achieved by making progress with welfare assessment in specific sectors (cattle, pigs and poultry) and by improving tools to identify animals with compromised welfare on commercial farms.

Cattle welfare assessment

In veal. The Ohio State University will begin to understand the challenges associated with veal calf welfare assessment by determining the prevalence of failure of passive transfer (FPT), dehydration, and disease in calves upon arrival to veal farms. A total of 400 calves across the 12 herds will be used for the study. On the day of calf arrival, experimenters will conduct a health exam and will draw blood for the assessment of FPT and dehydration of calves after they are moved into individual stalls. The health exam will include scoring systems implemented in previous field trials using dairy heifer calves (Habing et al., 2011); exams will include a respiratory score, fecal score, depression score, navel palpation, and rectal temperature. Results from this project will be used to develop a long-term veal calf health and welfare assessment program.

In dairy cattle. University of Kentucky, University of Tennessee and University of Minnesota will continue to evaluate outcome-based measures of welfare such as lameness, injury, mortality and disease incidence on commercial farms to determine benchmarks for improved welfare and provide guidelines for welfare assessments. These data will contribute to already established databases in all three groups, providing a broad basis for industry-relevant benchmarking information in existing audit and assessment tools.

Poultry welfare assessment

In chickens. University of California and Iowa State University will perform assessments of laying hen welfare on both small and large-scale cage-free commercial farms using a modified version of the Welfare Quality Assessment Protocol, combined with evaluation of producer records. The goal of these studies will be to determine the prevalence of problems that are of potentially highest concern: beak malformation/poor trimming; keel bone deviation and breakage; cannibalism; feather loss; foot problems; parasite infestation; disease; and mortality (and causes of mortality). An epidemiological approach will also be used to determine risks for these problems related to factors such as genetics, availability of outdoor access, organic management, pullet rearing methods, and housing configuration.

In ducks. University of California Davis will conduct research to quantify the way in which duck welfare assessment sampling protocols and methodologies affect obtained outcomes. Specifically, this station will compare the transect walk method described by Marchewka et al., 2013 and 2015, with data collected using standard animal welfare assessment methodologies. The research will improve our understanding of the accuracy of the evaluated methods, and will provide insight into the way in which aspects of sampling protocols (ex. proportion of flock sampled, frequency of visits) affect the method’s validity and reliability.

In turkeys. The transect walk method for evaluating the welfare status of birds has shown to be practical, low-cost, easy to implement and reliable across observers. Although validity has to be established separately for each broilers and turkeys, University of California Davis’ most recent trial with turkeys has shown that results obtained using the transect method are similar to results obtained by individual evaluation of each bird in the flock (during load out). By using the transect method to evaluate the welfare of turkeys as part of our upcoming research, we will be able to further our understanding of the accuracy and practicality of this assessment method.

Identifying animals with compromised welfare

In dairy cattle. University of Kentucky, Washington State University and University of Minnesota will investigate the application of precision dairy technologies such as cow behavior and temperature sensors to assess animal welfare at the group level and help dairy producers respond at the very first non-specific signs of imminent trouble. For example, there have been studies documenting that fresh cow disease is preceded by non-specific symptoms 5 to 10 days prior to the onset of specific clinical signs. Elevated core body temperature, reduced activity, drop in milk production, changes in feeding and resting behavior, and changes in milk composition are all signs that cows need attention. More research is needed on what can be done if/when a certain percentage of animals in a farm or group show signs of illness. The strategy would be to remove predisposing causes of sub-par performance or disease such as inadequate management practices or housing conditions. The outcome of this work will strength animal welfare assessment at the herd level by providing much-needed information about how electronical monitoring can be incorporated into herd management.

In pigs. Euthanasia is a necessary and important aspect of animal welfare. However, science-based guidance for pig producers on proper on-farm decision criteria for euthanasia in piglets is deficient. Scientific knowledge about the effects of various euthanasia methods on piglet and pig welfare is growing; nevertheless, the act of euthanasia on-farm involves a decision-making process from the stockperson, with the responsibility to perform the procedure itself. Equipping the stockperson with the most relevant and up-to-date knowledge that leads to good decision making and skills to competently perform the procedure is crucial to avoid undesirable welfare outcomes. Research to address the limited knowledge in this area is essential in formulating science-based recommendations and tools to enhance on-farm euthanasia decisions and individual piglet welfare. The Ohio State and Iowa State Universities will identify quantitative and qualitative decision criteria for on-farm euthanasia of pigs. Based on these findings, they will develop educational material on timely decisions for euthanasia of pigs for employees. This information will also inform animal welfare audits, such as the Common Swine Industry Audit.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Publication of results in peer-reviewed manuscripts Comments: This type of output that will provide researchers and educators with tools and information on how to assess animal welfare
  • Validation of science-based behavioral, physiological and disease measurements used to measure welfare
  • Incidence information for common welfare problems in veal, laying hens, dairy cattle and swine.
  • Development and/or validation of automated measures of welfare, including indicators of health and behavior in cattle and poultry.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • The findings of this committee have the potential to impact the welfare of billions of agricultural animals as well as to increase the productivity and competitiveness of US producers.
  • This project will provide insight into how agricultural animals respond to multiple stressors, thus improving our understanding of the effects of complex environments.
  • This project will improve the possibility of genetic selection for animals suited to their environment, from socially housed pigs to laying hen strains for a given housing type or feature.
  • This project will provide science-based recommendations about housing design, such as use of rubber mats for sows and design of calving areas for dairy cows.
  • The results from this project will provide science-based information about use of pain relief in cattle and ducks. These findings may facilitate treatment in production settings and establishment of efficacious analgesic drug regimens for various painful diseases or procedures.
  • Development and/or validation of automated measures of welfare, including indicators of health and behavior in cattle and poultry will lead to uptake of these technologies on commercial situations.
  • Incidence information for common welfare problems in veal, laying hens, dairy cattle and swine will inform animal welfare assessments and audits by providing valuable benchmarking data.
  • The accuracy of sampling methodologies will be improved in animal welfare assessments and audits, particularly for poultry and pigs.


(2017):Conduct, compile and analyze data from initial studies

(2018):Conduct planned studies using methods outlined above; apply for additional funding; prepare data for manuscripts and conference proceedings

(2019):Continue conducting planned studies; prepare data for manuscripts and conference proceedings

(2020):Continue conducting planned studies; prepare data for manuscripts and conference proceedings

(2021):Complete publications of all findings To date, the NC-1029 has been a successful multi-state project and we have every reason to expect continued success. Applied animal behavior and animal welfare research is a relatively new scientific discipline in the US. A challenge faced by the limited number of researchers working in this area is the ability to have a critical mass of persons and resources in one central location and available funding to support welfare and behavior programs. One of the strong points of the NC-1029 is that it fosters collaborative research, therefore consolidating resources and effort. In addition, some members of the committee also hold teaching and/or extension appointments, allowing the information to be more easily disseminated to stakeholders of animal agriculture. Members of the NC-1029 conduct research with a variety of species and approaches, and therefore, the diversity of experience and skills is an asset. This group is currently at the forefront of behavior and welfare research in agricultural animals and members are frequently approached by industry groups with questions related to animal welfare. Ideas and approaches from newer members should further contribute to the development of novel methods to measure behavior and assess on farm animal welfare. The NC-1029 comprises the leading applied animal behavior and welfare researchers and teachers in the US and their wide-ranging skills are likely to yield significant progress in this area.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Various members of NC-1029 hold extension or outreach appointments and will contribute to dissemination of project findings to other researchers, producers, and specialized groups who are using this kind of practical information to assess the welfare of agricultural animals. There are also many members involved in teaching activities so that the upcoming generation of researchers, industry and producers can be well informed about issues related to animal welfare.

Research scientists will be targeted through the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE), which is the international professional organization of scientists studying agricultural animal behavior, and appropriate scientific animal societies, such as American Society of Animal Science (ASAS), American Dairy Science Association (ADSA), American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) and Poultry Science Association (PSA). The ISAE has a regular newsletter and an e-mail network that can be used to inform others about the research project. The final research results will be presented at the ISAE annual congress before an international audience and it is likely that Applied Animal Behavior Science, the official journal of the ISAE, would be a key peer-review journal where results would be published. Members of NC-1029 will also present research results at the ASAS, ADSA, and PSA annual meetings and publish in the journals of these societies. A symposium will be proposed for presentation of final results of the project at ASAS/ADSA/PSA annual meetings.

Producers may be asked to review and comment on on-farm welfare assessment and audit programs for their particular species. Producers need to have some fundamental knowledge of the latest research results in these areas. In the US, outreach efforts will be led by the dissemination of information via the land-grant extension system as well as through the activities of each station. In general, members are well connected to many aspects of animal agriculture and often provide expert opinion for various industry groups, retailers and other stakeholders. Data generated from the current project will be disseminated at producer meetings, posted on websites, and published in relevant newspapers and trade magazines. Social media could also be used to distribute or highlight key results.

Results will also be disseminated to those groups that are considering, or that are already conducting, on-farm welfare assessments or audits. It is important that those groups incorporate practical indicators of welfare and that they know the validity and reliability of those indicators. This is particularly important since many of the options to assess welfare have not been carefully evaluated (an important point of this present project).

In general, this project is expected to result in collaborative, peer-reviewed scientific publications and reviews, as well as abstracts presented at national and international meetings, and extension publications. This project also provides unique opportunities for interdisciplinary training of graduate students and other research personnel.


The Executive Committee of the project shall consist of the Chair and Secretary.

Chair: The chair of the committee is responsible for organizing the meeting agenda, conducting the meeting, preparing the final version of annual report, and assuring that tasks and assignments are completed.

Secretary: The secretary is responsible for keeping records on decisions made at meetings (a.k.a. keeping the minutes) and assisting in the preparation of the annual report by collecting and combining station reports.

The Chair is elected for a 1-year term. The term of Office of the Chair will end at the adjournment of the regular annual meeting. The previous Secretary will become the Chair for 1 year. A new secretary will be elected each year by those attending the Committee meeting.

Members: Committee membership requires active participation and information exchange (including the submission of a station report) at the annual meetings. In addition to carrying out the agreed information exchange, project members are responsible for contributing to the ongoing progress of any committee activity, and communicating their accomplishments to the committee's members and their respective employing institutions. Regular attendance is vital for a committee to be successful. Therefore, members that do not attend the annual meeting or send a substitute 3 years in a row will be removed from the committee.

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Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, NIFA, Ohio State University, Spain, Tarleton State University
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