“The five freedoms of cattle”

Across livestock industries, animal welfare continues to be a hot topic of discussion. In his recent article for Progressive Dairyman, Ron Gill takes a look at one philosophy regarding animal welfare management – the “Five Freedoms.” Dr. John Webster, researcher and Professor of Animal Husbandry (University of Bristol), helped develop this philosophy known as the “Five Freedoms” in 1979. According to Dr. Webster,

 “…the five freedoms are an attempt to make the best of a complex situation. Absolute attainment of all five freedoms is unrealistic. By revealing that all commercial husbandry systems have their strengths and weaknesses, the five freedoms make it, on one hand, more difficult to sustain a sense of absolute outrage against any particular system…and easier to plan constructive, step by step, routes towards its improvement.”

Although the term “freedoms” in this context could be debated, at the very least these five “freedoms” of cattle comprise a good list of what managers of livestock should strive to provide:

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition — by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort — by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease — by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress — by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering.

Freedom from discomfort may be the most widely discussed “freedom” in the cattle industry. Since the industry does not involve intensive animal confinement, the environment cannot be completely under human control. The main point is that cattle should have the ability to protect themselves from extreme environmental conditions whenever and wherever possible.

Freedom from pain, injury and disease warrants some further explanation. No one, humans included, can have a completely pain-free existence. However, pain should be managed as much as possible for both animal comfort and productivity. Injury and disease should be prevented and treated as soon as possible should they occur.

Freedom to express normal behavior is clearly demonstrated in traditional beef cattle operations. Throughout every phase of production, cattle are managed in groups and have ample space for expressing normal behavior.

Freedom from fear and distress essentially means preventing stress on the cattle. With the exception of weather-related stress, cattle become stressed due to human action. To help avoid stress, employees should be trained in animal care and handling. People hired with no real background in the industry need to understand how the well-being of animals will affect the cattle’s quality of life, the people involved, and the operation’s profitability.

Although fulfilling all five freedoms all of the time is impossible, they do outline the basic standards for animal welfare that every manager/owner of livestock should strive for on his operation.

Source: “The five freedoms of cattle” article by Ron Gill. Progressive Dairyman, June 11, 2011 issue.


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