Expert says productivity has trumped welfare in breeding programs

New breeding techniques could improve welfare-related traits in animals, creating a win-win for livestock industry

Animal welfare shouldn’t take a back seat to productivity, says an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist.

“Health and welfare traits should take precedence over production traits,” said Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein at the recent Livestock Genomics in Alberta conference.

“Successful livestock production will only be accomplished through welfare-conscious management.”

But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades, she said.

While production levels of meat and milk have more than doubled in North America since the 1960s, breeding for traits that improve livestock health and welfare has lagged, she said. In part, that’s because selecting for health and welfare traits is “complex and multi-faceted” and those traits have low rates of heritability.

“Even if you wanted to select for some of those things, it would be hard through our traditional techniques,” she said.

As a result, there have been “unintended side-effects,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

“Selecting for particular genotypes has had some negative impacts on animal welfare,” she said. “With increased production, there’s an overall greater risk of… behavioural problems, physiological problems, and immunological problems.”

High-producing dairy cows are a “classic example of unintended welfare problems” caused by breeding programs.

“This high-producing dairy animal is more susceptible to mastitis. She has got reduced fertility and increased lameness. That connection (to breeding) has been clearly made.”

Foot problems caused by increased body weight in laying hens are another example.

“Increased selection for body size and body weight puts increased pressure on hens to draw calcium reserves from their own bones to put into the eggshell production. This can cause brittle bones and leg problems.”

And this “boomerang effect” could be hurting livestock producers’ bottom lines as there’s a very close relationship between animal welfare and productivity, said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

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“We know that when an animal has compromised welfare, there’s a stress response that’s elicited, and when this happens, we know that… performance measures and growth are also affected,” she said.

“The negative effects of these unintended consequences also make reductions in profits to our commodities.”

But new “molecular” breeding could change this scenario, she said. Scientists have identified “chromosomal regions that contain genes that have important effects on health and welfare” and can use genetic markers to incorporate this genetic material into breeding programs.

“We can select specifically for some of these (health and welfare) traits now,” said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

“Along with this comes more genetic information that allows us possibly to negate the negative effects of these selections.”

This would be a “win-win scenario,” she said.

“We could balance commercial pressures with animal welfare outcomes if we can select for some of these (welfare-related traits).”

But like traditional breeding techniques, marker-assisted selection could come with its own problems, including causing “genetic changes to happen too quickly,” she said.

“Because of this directed selection… there’s a lack of time required to adapt to the changes imposed by that selection.”

Caution should be the watchword, she said.

“It’s unlikely that these molecular techniques will offer a complete escape from unintended consequences,” she said. “Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

But another conference speaker said he’s “not on the same page” as Schwartzkopf-Genswein when it comes to health and welfare taking precedence over production traits.

“I don’t think we can ignore production traits because it’s so tied to productivity,” said Joe Stookey, a professor of animal behaviour at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We have to keep in mind health and welfare, but I don’t see how they could ever trump economics.”

Genetic selection has a role to play in addressing welfare issues — but it won’t come at the expense of productivity, he said. The cattle industry, for instance, has begun to sidestep the issue of dehorning by using traits from the naturally polled Angus breed, but the same cannot be said of the dairy industry.

“The dairy industry has that same potential. It could use that gene to address concerns with dehorning,” said Stookey. “But even though there are sires out there that carry that gene, the uptake is not there because of productivity.”

About the author

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Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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