Data shows real pig welfare is so much more than a ‘feeling’

I’m not much of an artist. I vividly remember slaving over a piece of artwork at school, only to be dashed by the teacher’s one-word comment: unconvincing.

Painting by numbers was one of the few arty activities that actually produced a reasonable picture. Ironically, I’m not a great one for numbers either. Maths was never my strong point, and I was more than a little dismayed when I realised that a significant amount of the discussions around pig farm management revolved around data.

As a management tool, good quality data is critical. Often during vet visits, while walking the farm, comments like ‘mortality is creeping up’ or ‘I think we’re seeing more returns’ indicates a feeling that something is not quite right. But it generally requires some evidence to confirm this is – or isn’t – the case.

Being able to quantify these observations is vital to focus attention on emerging issues, encourage change and provide a base to measure the success, or otherwise, of interventions that may be put in place. On occasions, interrogation of data might show a creeping trend that is insidiously eating away at productivity and profitability, despite no obvious on-farm signs.

“Often during vet visits, while walking the farm, comments like ‘mortality is creeping up’ or ‘I think we’re seeing more returns’ indicates a feeling that something is not quite right”

Welfare is an emotive issue, very much a ‘feel’ thing to many. This was neatly illustrated by a student who declared they were horrified by the age and appearance of a farrowing house seen during a farm visit. The producer challenged the student to point out any poor hygiene, clinical disease or welfare concerns with the pigs in the building – which they were unable to do. The farm figures showed upwards of 130kg of piglet was being weaned from each farrowing crate, with a farrowing rate of 87% and pre-weaning mortality of 7%. That student’s initial feeling was not supported by either the visible evidence or the supporting data.

Sadly, for the majority of producers faced with accusations of ‘poor welfare’ on their units, the ability to provide visible evidence is either restricted or not possible.
The first baseline report for Real Welfare has recently been published. Real Welfare has been positioned to provide some of this evidence – a standardised series of measures on each finishing unit, providing trends of welfare-related issues over time and contributing to an industry-level picture.

In the years we have been doing assessments, there have been individual farms that have benefited from some of the assessments, observing trends and the emerging patterns over time.
At best, it has been an additional tool in the management kit. (At worst, it has provided a great deal of entertainment as farmers have watched their vets being chewed on by curious pigs, losing assessment sheets down slats, getting stuck in mud and occasionally stuck in potholes).

One thing it has done is help us to put numbers to a general ‘feel’ for the industry, supporting our assertions that we take welfare seriously.
Each unit has contributed their own results to paint in a section of a larger picture.

Annie Davis has worked at the George Veterinary Group for 19 years. She is one of a team of seven pig vets, based in Malmesbury, Wiltshire

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