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Early warning signs found for tail biting in pigsEarly warning signs found for tail biting in pigs

European researchers examine cues and risks of tail biting in growing pigs.

Tim Lundeen 1

April 9, 2018

4 Min Read
Early warning signs found for tail biting in pigs
3D cameras can alert farmers to problem behaviors in pigs.Photo: Scotland's Rural College

In the European Union, routine tail docking in pigs has been banned, but tail biting continues to be an issue for pig producers. Therefore, European researchers have been looking at other preventative measures against tail biting.

At Aarhus University in Denmark, Mona Lilian Vestbjerg Larsen presented April 9 her doctoral defense on the production of slaughter pigs without tail biting and tail docking.

During her studies, Larsen researched ways to prevent tail biting when raising pigs for slaughter without using tail docking, according to Aarhus. She also looked at behavioral changes observed in pens of slaughter pigs prior to tail damage to possibly predict tail biting before it develops into serious damage on the pigs’ tail.

Larsen said her results showed that tail docking could be replaced if the pigs were provided with both straw and more space per pig, which may make farmers more confident in raising pigs without tail docking.

Also, pigs’ activity level, exploratory behavior and tail posture seemed related to tail biting, she said. Thus, all three types of behavior may be included in an automatic warning tool for farmers in the future that will be able to indicate which pens of slaughter pigs are at high risk of developing tail damage due to tail biting, Larsen suggested.

Indeed, a high-tech system involving 3-D cameras could help farmers spot the early warning signs of tail biting in pigs — a health and welfare concern in affected pigs and an economic concern for industry, according to an unrelated April 9 announcement from Scotland's Rural College (SRUC).

According to SRUC, new research has revealed that pigs hold their tails down against their body when tail biting is about to begin. In the study, 3-D cameras were placed above feeders to automatically measure whether pigs' tails were up and curly or held down.

The research was carried out using 23 groups of weaner/grower pigs that were regularly scored for any signs of tail injury. The animals were closely monitored and tail biting was stopped as soon as an outbreak was detected.

SRUC said outbreaks of tail biting have no single cause; there are a number of contributing factors that could include elements of the pig’s genetics, nutrition, environment and management. Outbreaks can occur unpredictably and spread quickly. Tail docking can be used as a measure to control tail biting; however, this is no longer seen as an acceptable routine solution to prevent against outbreaks, SRUC said.

The research, which has been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, was the result of a collaboration among SRUC animal behavior and welfare experts, Scottish farm technology company Innovent Technology Ltd., pig supply chain partners — including feed company Harbro and Sainsbury’s supermarkets — and the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI).

Lead author Dr. Rick D’Eath from SRUC said, “Tail biting results in pain and sickness for bitten pigs and severe economic losses for farmers as infection through tail wounds results in abattoir condemnation of meat. This condemnation alone can cost a producer up to 1% of the carcass value and a loss for the processor of 1% of saleable carcass from the pig.

“There are also unquantified on-farm costs as a result of the increased labor and veterinary treatments resulting from an outbreak. Tail docking of piglets is partly effective at reducing tail biting in later life but is seen as an undesirable mutilation and its routine use is banned in the EU," D'Eath said.

“This research has achieved everything we hoped for. We can automatically measure tail posture, and we’ve proved it can act as an early warning of tail biting. The challenge for us now is to develop this promising technology into a robust, on-farm early warning system that works on any pig farm,” he added.

This "proof of concept" will now be developed in a follow-on Innovate U.K.-funded project called “TailTech,” which will collect data from more diverse pig farms and develop and test a prototype early-warning system. It strengthens the consortium with additional pig supply chain partners: pig breeders JSR Genetics, engineers David Ritchie Ltd., pig veterinary clinic Garth Pig Practice and farmers’ cooperative Scottish Pig Producers.

Dave Stephenson, head of pig and poultry at Harbro, said, “TailTech is another example of a key initiative from the British pig industry designed to drive higher welfare standards on farm."

Grant Walling, director of science and technology at JSR Genetics, added, “We recognize that tail biting impacts on animal welfare, farm productivity and pork quality. Any tool that can help reduce or eradicate the problem is a benefit to the whole supply chain. This technology has the potential to predict future victims so offers opportunities to update and include information within our selection strategies to reduce the incidence of tail-biting in future generations.”

Innovent Technology already produces a camera-based pig weighing system Qscan (sold internationally through SKOV as ProGrow), and the tail-biting detection system will be developed as an add-on to that technology, the announcement said.

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