“There’s no such thing as kind of animal-friendly”

Bas Rodenburg and Jeannette van de Ven talk about the unavoidable road to animal-friendly livestock farming

In 2021, at the behest of the Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the Council on Animal Affairs formulated six leading principles for animal-friendly livestock farming. Bas Rodenburg and Jeannette van de Ven were involved in drafting the resulting covenant. What does an animal-friendly livestock farm look like? And what does it take to achieve that? “We still have a long way to go, but there is no avoiding the road ahead of us.”

Bas Rodenburg, Professor of Animal Welfare, speaks with Jeannette van de Ven, a dairy goat farmer in Brabant and Netherlands Horticultural and Agricultural Organisation board member, about animal-friendly livestock farming.

What does animal-friendly livestock farming mean to the two of you?

“Ah, you’re starting off with the toughest question,” Jeannette van Ven says with a laugh. She owns a dairy goat farm in the province of North-Brabant and sits on the board of the Netherlands Horticultural and Agricultural Organisation. “The Council on Animal Affairs has written a great vision statement about that, but if you were to ask average citizens, it would mean something different to everyone. Some people think it’s animal-friendly to give chickens ten centimetres more space per bird, while others would aim for free range and an organic-dynamic system. That makes it hard to determine what counts as ‘animal-friendly’.”

“It would be easier if we only had to take animal welfare into account,” the goat farmer continues. “Instead, farmers find themselves dealing with many challenges at the same time. They have to weigh aspects like the environment and climate, emissions and food safety as well. If animal-friendly livestock farming were just about the welfare of the animals, we’d all be able to figure it out pretty easily – right, Bas?”

“Yes, I think so,” Bas Rodenburg, Professor of Animal Welfare at UU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, answers with a grin. “The Council on Animal Affairs operates from the standpoint of the animal’s needs. That means looking for ways to integrate their natural behaviours into the way you keep that animal. This approach is vital in order to support animals’ capacity to adapt. An animal must be able to exert some degree of control over its environment, both in terms of the social group and the physical environment. Research has shown us that this enhances an animal’s well-being. But at the same time, I see the challenges with regard to sustainability and climate. When you let chickens run around outside, for example, more nitrogen ends up in the environment than when they just stay in the shed. Ultimately, all those factors will have to be brought together.”

In your opinion, what needs to be done first?

Van de Ven says: “Most of all, we need clarity about the principles guiding our actions. The Council on Animal Affairs’ report is a good place to start, but we still need to reach consensus about it. If we operate based on the animals’ interest, what concessions will we have to make in the area of environment and climate? This needs to be clear before we can start thinking about what animal-friendly livestock farming will mean for individual cows, chickens or pigs.”

Van de Ven wonders: will our goal for 2040 be the ‘modest home’, with a minimum standard of animal welfare, or the animal-friendly ‘villa’. “That’s an actual discussion at the moment. Some farmers want to take big steps to achieve animal-friendly livestock farming by 2040, while others are wondering who’s going to pay for all of it.”

Rodenburg adds: “If you act purely based on an animal’s interests, there’s really no such thing as ‘kind of’ animalfriendly. The intrinsic value of an animal, no physical modifications and keeping the calf with the cow are major topics right now. Then the question becomes: does the ‘modest home’ even exist, or should you work toward the villa? And if so, what road do you take to get there?”

Van de Ven continues: “The entire farm operation then needs to meet higher standards of animal welfare. Many farmers would like to do that, but they have to be able to recoup the investment it will take. So how do we do that?”

Rodenburg: “Yeah, that’s something I’m still trying to figure out as well. But you can’t sort-of stop docking piglets’ tails, or sort-of leave calves with their mothers. The exact same discussion is taking place at the European level, too. In some countries – like Spain or Eastern European countries – it’s normal for chickens to be kept in cages (called batteries), but that’s no longer allowed in the Netherlands. So how does the EU move forward as a whole?”

You can't sort-of stop docking piglets’ tails, or sort-of leave calves with their mothers

What are the major challenges?

Van de Ven: “By choosing the ‘modest house’ scenario, you leave room in the market for additional characteristics and offer the consumers freedom of choice. On top of which, we’re dealing with a European market. If we set the bar too high in the Netherlands, I worry that retailers will simply go abroad to buy their products. This is where the tension lies: how far can we stretch?”

Van de Ven continues: “If we fail to integrate all these challenges, the farmers will wind up having to face each one separately. This has obviously happened many times in the past, but is no longer a viable approach. We need to seek out a workable system that lets us achieve animal-friendly livestock farming while also enabling farmers to meet their other obligations, such as those arising from the Climate Act. Integral consideration is needed and we won’t be able to earn a perfect score in every area.”

Does that mean an animal-friendly livestock industry is just a dream?

Rodenburg: “I think it is absolutely possible to take steps in that direction. But we can’t achieve every single part of the ideal scenario. The Netherlands is good at developing and marketing innovative systems. If it can happen anywhere, it’s here. But we need to think carefully about the larger whole: animal welfare, the environment, food safety and a good earnings model for the livestock farmer.”

How do you measure animal well-being?

“Animal well-being begins with behaviour,” the Professor says. “We know, for each kind of animal we raise, what its natural behaviour looks like. Chickens, for instance, spend a lot of time scurrying around and cows want to graze and chew their cud. We know how they would normally spend their time. Does a chicken spend all day lying motionless on the ground, or does it run about like mad? On a farm, you can systematically monitor this using cameras or sensors such as step-counters. There are also more and more ways to tell how an animal is feeling and how it perceives its environment. Take body language for example: how the animal is standing or lying down. Animals often let their ears or tails droop when they aren’t feeling well. It is even possible to discern emotions from the facial expressions of pigs. There are also physical metrics, such as blood pressure or hormone levels. We can also tell a lot from the noises animals make. More and more research is being done into the positive well-being of animals.”

Are we not biased by the human perspective?

Rodenburg: “We genuinely try to ‘ask’ the animal how it is feeling. What choices will an animal make, if you let it choose? You can even conduct psychological testing on animals, as in ‘is the glass half-full or half-empty?’ In such tests, the animal itself ‘tells’ you whether it is feeling at ease or not through the choices it makes. While this method is too laborious for on the farm, it is very useful for research purposes.”

“That is why scientific study is so important!” interjects Van de Ven. “We want to avoid going to extremes in anthropomorphising animals; a cow doesn’t need a TV to watch in the evening. But animal-friendly livestock farming shouldn’t become a checklist saying this many water troughs, this much space, this much light.”

We want to avoid going to extremes in anthropomorphising animals; a cow doesn’t need a TV to watch in the evening

Bas, knowing what you do about animal welfare, could you ever be a farmer?

He laughs: “Yes, I could be a farmer. But my farm would be organic, with circular concepts and a strong focus on animal welfare. That would reflect the principles that I think are important for the animals.”

What kind of livestock would you want to have?

“I think laying hens, they’re what I know the most about. And I already have a small herd of sheep as a hobby – five Zwartbles sheep, that I also breed.”

And Jeannette, if you could start again, would you still be a dairy goat farmer?

“Yes, I think so! I really enjoy working with animals. I feel it balances nicely with my work on the Horticultural and Agricultural Organisation board. It’s also important to me to be personally active in the agricultural sector, so the farmers see I am one of them. When a scientist says ‘we’re going to stop dehorning cows and goats’, everyone flies off the handle. But when I say it, they know I am familiar with real-world practice. That’s important to farmers.”

Are you feeling optimistic about our chances for an animal-friendly future?

Rodenburg: “I think it’s remarkable that, in the Netherlands, we are all going through this process (and having a dialogue about it) together. We no doubt have a long journey ahead, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Van de Ven: “I think so, too, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to support those in the vanguard as effectively as possible, holding them up as a good example, but we should also make more of an effort to get the middle group onboard. That happens in increments. The road to animal-friendly livestock farming is unavoidable, at both the Dutch and European level – I’m sure of it. The market will have to adjust quickly to keep up. Otherwise it’ll be a war of attrition.”

As a centre of veterinary expertise, we want to maximise our impact in connection with important societal themes. To that end, we are eager for chances to speak with those around us, such as in the dialogues we organise. On 2 October, we organised a dialogue on animal-friendly livestock farming. In that discussion, we jumped forward to 2040: a time when all farm animals are kept in animal-friendly conditions. We then asked ourselves how we got there. Researchers, livestock farmers, veterinarians, animal rights advocates, civil servants and other professionals exchanged perspectives on the issue.

If you would like to be invited to take part in our dialogues, send an email to vetscience@uu.nl.