Livestock and Production animals
Developing a better understanding of animal behaviour and how they interact with livestock handlers is resulting in improved animal welfare and on-farm productivity.
The computer-based training program ProHand specifically targets key attitudes and behaviours known to have a direct effect on animals’ fear of humans.
Animal Welfare Science Centre (AWSC) Executive Officer and ProHand trainer Jeremy Skuse said the program used a cognitive-behavioural technique to target and change the attitudes of stockpeople towards their animals.
“If the relationship is right, not only does the animal perform well from a welfare perspective, but life is better for the stockperson as animals are easier to handle and there is an economic benefit,” Mr Skuse said.
View video of ProHand here on the AAWS YouTube channel
ProHand was developed by Australian Pork Ltd and Monash University, The University of Melbourne and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries under the auspices of the Animal Welfare Science Centre.
The initiative is being supported by the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS), a collaborative program which aims to deliver sustainable improvements in welfare for all Australian animals and across the entire community. AAWS is a partnership between state and territory government agencies, industry groups, animal welfare organisations, research bodies and professional associations, with the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) providing coordination and program management.
The ProHand course identifies appropriate and inappropriate behaviours of stockpeople towards farm animals and how to recognise fear responses in farm animals. A Stockperson Handling Questionnaire allows participants to compare their attitudes with others in the industry and provides tailored feedback for improvement.
Victorian pork producer Geordie Charles said the ProHand course had resulted in a better understanding of animal behaviour by his staff and as a result, improved handling techniques.
Mr Charles puts new employees through the ProHand course within their first three months of starting work. It has been particularly valuable in educating unskilled labourers who don’t have a background in agriculture or animal handling.
“It’s a very practical course and not too daunting, and our younger workers are comfortable using computer training programs,” Mr Charles said.
“They’re coming back with a better awareness of the animals’ needs and realising that these pigs are individual animals with their own characteristics that you’ve got to recognise.
“The staff realise that the pigs can recognise and respond to positive and negative behaviour, and that they have got very good memories – they quickly work out that our pigs behave very much like humans.”
The Charles family employs 45 people at their Ballarat farm, 15 of whom work in the 2000-sow piggery. The farm also features 800-hectares of cropping, which produces feed grain which is milled and mixed on-farm to meet the pigs’ dietary needs. Nothing is wasted, with a methane digester used to provide electricity to the grid, while other bi-products are composted and sold as soil conditioner.
“Many of our new workers are quite surprised by what goes on in the livestock industry – it’s not just about feeding and watering animals, there’s a fair bit of science in it as well, and this includes our approach to animal welfare,” Mr Charles said.
“We reinforce the ProHand messages with posters around the farm and the guidance we provide staff about how to best handle the stock.
“Positive habits as simple as patting the pigs or scratching them under their necks, or even just talking to them, generate positive responses from the animals. Likewise the negative behaviours like hitting or kicking generate fear, which we don’t tolerate, only makes the pigs harder to move and handle.”
Mr Charles said it was difficult to quantify a business benefit of the putting his staff through the course, but he has observed both improved performance from his team and time savings when moving stock.
The research team, which included AWSC Director Prof. Paul Hemsworth and psychologist Prof. Graeme Coleman, noted most animal welfare work had focused on improving conditions for captive animals, finding alternatives to painful husbandry procedures and improving transport conditions. However, it found that stockperson behaviour towards an animal may have the most influential effect on an animal’s welfare.
“This is because poor handling can lead to animals developing a strong fear response to humans,” Prof. Hemworth said.
“Negative emotional states, like fear, create high stress levels. This releases hormones that can disrupt the animal’s metabolism. The stress response adversely affects growth and reproduction, which limits animal welfare and productivity.
“We looked at the effects of handling on fear and physiology in pigs, cattle and laying hens across hundreds of farms around the world. We found that fear accounted for a significant variation in reproductive performance across farms. To improve an animal’s welfare, the fear response must be eliminated.”
The research found that improved welfare could result in up to a 5% increase in milk yield in dairy cattle and a 5% increase in pig growth rate, as well as improvements in meat quality.
Structure of ProHand
Four to 10 stockpeople are trained together. The program is divided into two sessions, run about a month apart.
The first session takes 4 hours to complete, is designed for all levels of literacy and does not require computer skills. Stockpeople do the program at their own pace and are given summaries and reviews throughout.
The second session is a revision of the first session, together with new material relating to job satisfaction and occupational health and safety.
The training package specifically targets key attitudes and behaviours known to have a direct effect on animals’ fear of humans.
It provides advice on when, where and how behavioural change should occur.
ProHand programs have been developed for the Pig, Pork Abattoir, Dairy and Red Meat Abattoir sectors.
ProHand Pigs and Pork Abattoir are provided by trained trainers in each mainland State and ProHand Dairy is delivered nationally by the National Centre for Dairy Education.