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UW-Madison professor makes animal welfare a priority

Sarah Adcock seeks solutions that improve animals’ lives while also being viable for farmers to implement.

July 14, 2023

6 Min Read
Holstein dairy calves in pen
PAIN TOLERANCE: As part of her research at UW-Madison, Sarah Adcock used a device called an algometer to measure calves’ pain threshold during disbudding and introduced a preference test to allow the calves to seek a pain-reducing drug. FRAN O’LEARY

by Jim Massey

Have you ever wondered whether you could diagnose a sick animal from changes in its behavior or how much pain a calf is experiencing after disbudding?

Those are the kinds of questions Sarah Adcock is seeking the answers for in her animal welfare research lab and classroom. Adcock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy and animal sciences assistant professor.

Adcock, who joined the faculty in 2020, explores animal welfare topics from the animal’s perspective — evaluating how farm practices affect animal behavior, physiology and productivity — and develops strategies to optimize those outcomes.

Adcock is a native of Quebec, Canada, and began her collegiate studies at McGill University in Montreal, where she took on a research assistant position with an environmental ethics project. While doing so, she became interested in farm animal welfare and began to realize that she could apply animal behavior research in ways that could improve animal lives.

Adcock next completed her master’s program in cognitive behavior ecology at Memorial University of Newfoundland before doing her doctoral work in animal behavior at the University of California-Davis. While in California, she worked in the same lab as Jennifer Van Os, who joined the UW-Madison Animal and Dairy Sciences Department as an assistant professor and Extension animal welfare specialist two years before Adcock.

Adcock’s doctoral work focused on the long-term welfare impacts of hot-iron disbudding in dairy calves, examining how long it takes the wound to heal and whether calves experience pain during that healing period. Her research showed that the pain lasts longer than had been previously thought.

As part of her research, Adcock used a device called an algometer to measure calves’ pain threshold and introduced a preference test to allow the calves to seek a pain-reducing drug. The calves were trained to access a nipple attached to a plywood board on each side of their pen. One nipple offered the promise of an injection to provide pain relief at the disbudding site while the other nipple was paired with an injection of saline solution, offering no pain relief.

“We gave the calves both options at the same time to see which they would choose,” Adcock says. “We found that the disbudded calves were more likely to go with the nipple associated with pain relief than the non-disbudded calves, which suggests that they were choosing this option to relieve some ongoing pain.”

Preference testing

“Preference tests are a great way to ask the animal how they’re feeling,” Adcock says.

Her research also followed calves’ rumination and suckling behavior over a three-week period after disbudding and found that disbudded calves ruminated less and sucked more from their milk bottles during that time. It was assumed that the additional sucking offered calves a soothing affect, suggesting they were still feeling pain.

Adcock knows that disbudding dairy calves is a common practice, and that there aren’t a lot of other good options for dairy farmers. She is hopeful there eventually will be an increase in polled genetics so there won’t be as much need for disbudding.

She says the best practice is to disbud during the first 2 months of age and to provide pain relief with the procedure.

“How long to provide pain relief is a good question, although we know the pain lasts for several weeks,” Adcock says. “Right now, the best practice is to provide local anesthetic at the buds during disbudding and to provide an anti-inflammatory that will help with the pain for a day or two after that. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good strategy for controlling long-term pain.”

Her general research program at the UW focuses on reducing welfare impacts associated with painful procedures, such as ways to diagnose mastitis in meat-breed sheep, and looking at the short- and long-term impacts of tail docking in lambs.

Adcock teaches an undergraduate course called Animal Welfare, which explores animal welfare topics from the animal’s perspective. So, what does that mean?

“It starts with the basic acknowledgement that other species have needs that are different from our species,” she says. “The course is about using scientific tools to be able to understand what animals need from their perspective, rather than basing answers on our own human experience. Animal welfare science aims to determine how animals respond to different standard practices and develop interventions to improve their welfare.”

Many of the students in the course are on the pre-veterinary track, and they would have a goal as a veterinarian to keep animals healthy and heal those that are not. But Adcock warns that a healthy animal is not necessarily a happy animal.

“Good health is necessary but not sufficient for welfare,” she says. “We need to ensure animal welfare beyond health, considering an animal’s behavioral needs and making sure those are met.”

Productivity vs. animal welfare

Adcock says farmers care about animal welfare but may conflate it with productivity. The decisions to make improvements in animal welfare are obvious when the connection between welfare and production is clear — such as preventing diseases that lower productivity — but not so obvious when there’s a trade-off between productivity and welfare.

“For example, selective breeding of broilers to grow rapidly and put on a lot of muscle mass increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, skeletal injuries and other painful conditions,” but producers want to get those animals to market weight as quickly as possible, Adcock says.

The same goes for providing pain relief for painful procedures, which does not necessarily translate into improvements for productivity.

“When there is no clear connection or a trade-off between welfare and productivity, that’s where we need to evaluate our ethical responsibilities toward animals in our care,” she says. “Consumers need to know that farmers face a lot of challenges and things aren’t always perfect, but we need to show that animal welfare is a priority.”

Consumer confusion

Consumer interest in animal-welfare practices has been increasing in recent years, Adcock says, but there is confusion surrounding many of the food-product labels consumers see in the store.

“Labels like “cage-free” or “pasture-raised,” or labels created by certification programs, vary widely in terms of meaningfulness for animal welfare,” she says. “There’s not a lot of transparency. It’s difficult for consumers to make informed purchases based on those labels alone.”

Consumers might also look for organic food products with the belief that the animals raised within those systems are treated better than on conventional farms, but that isn’t necessarily the case, Adcock says.

“There are very few standards in the organic certification program that address animal welfare, so I don’t think that is necessarily a good indicator that an animal was humanely raised,” she says. “If you’re trying to buy a high-welfare product, organic is not going to guarantee that.”

Future research projects in Adcock’s lab will include early identification of mastitis in dairy sheep and looking at the long-term effects of beak trimming in laying hens. With the hens, she wants to examine whether a dietary intervention could reduce the need to beak-trim birds.

Adcock says she wants to work with farmers on animal welfare issues because any solution to an animal welfare problem has to be viable for farmers to implement.

“It’s important to hear farmer feedback, to hear their experiences and to understand the decisions farmers have to make,” she says. “The best way forward for research to actually improve animals’ lives is to make sure we have solutions that are going to work.

“My goal is that my research contributes toward achieving a sustainable, socially responsible food system that benefits humans and animals alike.”

Massey lives near Barneveld, Wis.

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