November 15, 2018
The University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, is investigating an alternative to piglet castration without anesthesia called immunocastration, according to a translated announcement from the university. With two injections instead of two cuts, the animal-friendly alternative to surgical piglet castration without anesthesia has long existed. In so-called immunocastration, farmers vaccinate male piglets in two steps so they are comparable to animals before puberty at the time of slaughter.
Scientists at the University of Hohenheim have been coordinating a Europe-wide research project for more than a year to promote immunocastration — to make it more competitive, more environmentally friendly and even more animal friendly. Germany's Federal Ministry of Food & Agriculture is funding the project via the Federal Agency for Agriculture & Food (BLE) with a total of almost 1.3 million euros. At the University of Hohenheim, there are more than 283,000 euros in funding toward the heavyweight research project.
In Europe, the current practice of castrating piglets without anesthesia is incompatible with today's animal welfare standards. Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, has banned the practice by the end of the year, but the ban may still be postponed, the university suggested. The problem is that the parties do not agree on which alternative method is most appropriate.
"The fact is that awareness of the problem has generally increased in Europe," professor Volker Stefanski, a pig expert at the University of Hohenheim, explained. "From the point of view of animal welfare, there is one method that best meets the demands: immunocastration, in which the animals are vaccinated against the boar taint."
Nevertheless, immunocastration is hardly practiced in Germany. In order to change that, Stefanski and his Hohenheim colleagues — Ulrike Weiler, Korinna Huber, Ludwig Hölzle, Linda Wiesner and Kevin Kress — as well as seven partner institutions from all over Europe, are examining how to optimize the method through the research project, titled "Sustainability in Pork Production with Immunocastration."
From a welfare point of view, all other alternatives are no real gain, according to Weiler. "With the must of uncastrated boars, the unpleasant boar odor that the flesh of some boars has is just one of the problems," Weiler explained. "Without castration, the animals show a much more aggressive behavior. Above all, the biting of the penis is widespread: About every 10th animal suffers from severe injuries, [which are] often more painful than surgical castration."
With castration under general anesthesia, on the other hand, the high costs aren't the only problem. "In gas anesthesia, about one-fifth of the animals do not have proper anesthesia," Weiler explained. "In addition, the piglets have little energy reserves and have to drink every half-hour. They miss meals and are thereby weakened. In addition, the danger that they are crushed by the mother increases."
Immunocastration is the method of choice, the researchers said. The boar receives two vaccinations that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against the body's own hormones. After the second vaccination, the hormone production is stopped, and the onset of puberty is delayed. The cost is around 2.50 euros per injection, and the farmer is allowed to give the injections. "The method actually serves consumer protection and animal welfare alike," Stefanski said.
"Already, we can say that immunocastration performs better than the other methods in many ways," Stefanski said. "The environmental balance is already better, and with regard to stomach ulcers, the animals are inconspicuous, which suggests little stress."
The immunocastrates, according to the expert, display much less aggressive behavior overall. "They also barely ride on bay comrades and barely battle. Injuries caused by penile biting are, therefore, rare," he said.
By the end of the project in August 2020, the project partners want to jointly gain insights into the nutrition of the immunocastrate as well as achieve an even better environmental balance with less nitrogen excretion and a better greenhouse gas balance. Their goal is to improve the efficiency of the process, to investigate consumer acceptance and to ensure high product quality.
The University of Hohenheim coordinates the project. Cooperation partners are: Institute for Agricultural & Fisheries Research in Belgium, French National Institute for Agricultural Research, Agricultural Institute of Slovenia, University of Ljubljana-Veterinary Faculty in Slovenia, SEGES Pig Research Center in Denmark, Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Poland and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
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