New EU project to reduce tail biting, docking in pigs

Scientists from eight countries are collaborating on finding solutions to tail biting in pigs using different approaches.

Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark are collaborating with scientists from seven other countries on a new research project on 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 to 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 that the pigs can chew on or root, the announcement said.

Pigs have a strong innate need for exploring 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 being bitten, 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 only be used if other means of preventing the behavior have been tried. In some countries — for example, Sweden, Norway and Finland — the practice of tail docking is already banned. These countries, therefore, provide an opportunity for testing methods to prevent tail biting without needing to dock.

The FareWellDock project is a three-year research project beginning in the autumn of 2013 in Denmark, the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the U.S. The overall aim is to supply necessary information for quantitative risk assessment of tail biting and to stimulate the development towards a non-docking situation in the EU.

Research will be carried out in three complementary international researcher 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 that are tail-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 that are tail 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 and Newcastle University in the U.K., INRA in France, Aarhus, Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands, SLU in Sweden, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

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