AARHUS University in Denmark announced that its researchers are collaborating with scientists from seven other countries on a new research project investigating how to prevent one of the major behavioral problems on commercial pig farms: tail biting.
According to Aarhus, the aim of the collaboration is to yield new knowledge that will help remove the need for tail docking — the currently widespread preventive practice of cutting off part of the tails of young piglets.
"Our goal is to reduce tail biting using other methods than docking of the pigs' tails. This would prevent the pain associated with docking in the pigs and ease the work load of the farmers," Aarhus senior scientist Lene Juul Pedersen said.
Tail biting is one of the major problems in modern pig production both in terms of animal welfare and production economy. It is an abnormal behavior that can result from several causes, such as stress, illness, poor indoor air quality or competition for food or water. One of the main causes is a lack of materials for the pigs to chew on or root, the announcement said.
Pigs have a strong, innate need to explore their environment by chewing, biting, rooting and manipulating various objects and materials. When there are not enough exploration and manipulation substrates in the pen, biting can get redirected to other pigs, especially their ears and tails. This may result in tail biting.
In many European countries, tail docking — the practice of cutting part of the piglets' tails at a young age — is used to control the problem. While this does reduce the risk of pigs biting other pigs, it causes pain during cutting.
Some farmers, consumers, legislators and others would like to stop the practice of tail docking. The European Union's pig directive states that tail docking can be used only if other means of preventing the behavior have been tried. In some countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland, the practice of tail docking is already banned. These countries, therefore, provide an opportunity for testing alternative methods to prevent tail biting without needing to dock.
The FareWellDock project is a three-year research project that began this fall in Denmark, the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the U.S.
Research will be carried out in three complementary international research activities. One group will delve into developing improved measures to prevent tail biting. An essential part is research into reasons for tail biting outbreaks, i.e., which factors in the daily life on farms actually trigger this behavior.
Another research group will develop methods to assess what constitutes a sufficient quantity of straw or other chewing and rooting materials to satisfy the pigs' need to explore and, therefore, reduce tail biting risk and how to improve the feasibility of using straw on farms with different manure systems.
The third group of scientists will focus on finding out what actually happens to the piglets whose tails have been docked. They will investigate how much pain piglets feel during docking, whether this results in long-term pain and how this compares to the pain experienced by pigs whose tails have been bitten should an outbreak occur.
The project is led by professor Anna Valros of the University of Helsinki in Finland. The other research institutes participating in the project are Scotland's Rural College, Newcastle University in the U.K., the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France, Aarhus, Wageningen University & Research Center Livestock Research in the Netherlands, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.