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Assessing and Addressing On-Farm Sheep Welfare

Project start date: 30 May 2014
Project end date: 15 October 2017
Publication date: 01 January 2018
Project status: Completed
Livestock species: Sheep, Lamb
Relevant regions: Victoria
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The core aim of this research project was to understand the relationships between producer attitudes and the welfare of their ewes.

Six animal-based measures were evaluated for use as ewe welfare indicators:

  1. body condition score
  2. fleece condition
  3. skin lesions
  4. tail length
  5. dag score; and
  6. lameness.

Over the course of this study, the main welfare issues were poor nutrition (under and over feeding), mortality, lameness, ecto-parasites (flystrike) and mastitis. All of these issues can arise from, and be treated by, management practices. Along with management strategies, reproductive stage, breed and region all affected animal welfare, but farm size did not.

Farmers had very positive views on the importance of the welfare of their ewes. It was clear that our farmers had a strong concern and appreciation for animal welfare and attitudinal beliefs that their actions influenced ewe welfare. In some cases, however, there was a disconnect between their behaviours and welfare outcomes of the ewes under their care.

Attitude and perceived behavioural control were the two key drivers behind the behaviour of sheep farmers. Strategies to encourage behaviour change that target these drivers to be developed and tested. Benchmarking welfare and production would be one valuable way to engage farmers and encourage change. In the short term improving data collection and record keeping would be a simple activity to benefit welfare.

Providing farmers with easily accessible and practical solutions to common welfare issues could help increase the frequency with which animals needing further care are treated. Methods would need to be applied when ewes are in the yards, or implement relatively easily in the paddock.

Industry-wide welfare risks were tail length, lameness and recording accurate data on mortalities. Targeting these issues would have substantial benefit to a large number of animals. Cost-benefit analyses indicate modest financial gains on farm with improved welfare. These include reduced losses from short docked tails and gains from improved body condition management through more effective pasture allocations. Across all study farms, the average annual ewe mortality rate was 4.9%. A 1% reduction in the annual ewe mortality rate would increase the gross income of the Australian sheep flock by $53,516,000. Economic modelling did not include the industry identified risk animal welfare poses the biggest single risk to maintaining market compliance over the next 15 years.

Research recommendations focus on benchmarking welfare between different classes of stock, farms and over time, understanding incidents and causes of lameness and mastitis further, and evaluating the impact of activities targeting attitude and perceived behavioural control. Extension recommendations involve providing practical solutions to common welfare issues identified on farm, and tools to identify issues early.

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Primary researcher: University of Melbourne