Scientists Seek to Improve Farm Animal
Conditions By Don
June 25, 2001
You could call them the Jane Goodalls of the farm
world. Currently limited to just a handful of practitioners, a new
scientific discipline has appeared: animal ethologists who study the behavior
not of gorillas or other animals in the wild, but pigs and cows on the
They are similar to wildlife ethologists in that they observe
animals in their natural habitats, as undisturbed as possible. This requires
the use of remote cameras, binoculars and blinds.
The U.S. Department of
Agricultures hiring this year of farm animal ethologist Donald C. Lay
means that two of that handful of new specialists are now federal employees.
Julie Morrow-Tesch was the first USDA farm animal ethologist. Both are with
USDAs chief scientific research agency, the
Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Lay, in West Lafayette, Ind., spends long hours watching sows
with their young. He is trying to find clues to the accidental crushing
behavior responsible for half of piglet deaths each year--most occurring in the
first 24 hours of life. Lay is based at the
ARS Livestock Behavior Research
At Lubbock, Texas, hidden inside a surveillance van or in a
platform on the roof of the van, Morrow-Tesch and colleagues spend a continuous
24-hour session, four times a year, parked in commercial cattle feedlots. Their
observations have already identified certain problems and possible solutions.
For example, theyve found that switching the main meal for cattle from
morning to evening could cut aggressive behavior in half. The mounting and
scuffling of hungry cattle results in costly injuries and kicks up dust,
raising air quality issues for workers. Morrow-Tesch works at the
ARS Livestock Issues Research Unit.
This farm animal behavior research is part of the ARS National
Program on Animal
Well-Being and Stress-Control Systems that began in 1994. The program
aims to find solutions to problems like piglet mortality through monitoring
Morrow-Teschs studies are the first characterization of
Texas feedlot cattle behavior. Observing behavior is the best way to measure
animal stress--especially in a commercial setting, where research techniques
cannot interfere with raising cattle for market. For more information, see the
article in the June 2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.