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Nip in the bud

Nip in the bud

Pigs’ tails are commonly docked to prevent tail biting, but a crackdown on this problematic practice means alternative solutions are needed. Teagasc Research Officer Keelin O’Driscoll has been leading projects in this area, to find a sustainable solution to the tail biting challenge.

Photo above: Keelin O’Driscoll is looking for sustainable solutions to the tail biting problem, as the practice of tail docking is banned in the EU

Tail biting – when a pig bites or chews another pig’s tail – continues to be a prominent economic and welfare problem for the pig industry. It’s a common response to stress or discomfort, and while it’s not meant to be an aggressive act, it can hurt and cause injuries.

Tail docking – the practice of removing part of a pig’s tail to reduce the risk of tail biting – is banned in the EU. Legislation states that it should only be used when all other avenues have been exhausted. Very few member states are compliant with the legislation, however, and it continues to be commonly practised – including in Ireland.

In recent years, the EU has taken the breach of legislation more seriously, carrying out audits, study visits and asking for action plans on the limiting of tail docking. As such, sustainable solutions to the problem are needed.

Research Officer Keelin O’Driscoll has a keen interest in animal welfare, and has spent years studying it. She has a Masters in Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare, and for her PhD she studied the effect of out-wintering pad design on dairy cow health and welfare, which brought her to Teagasc Moorepark.

Since 2013 she has been employed in the Teagasc Pig Development Department, and has since worked on projects related to tail biting. 

Keelin, why is tail docking so prominent in Ireland?

Tail docking has been used for welfare reasons because there was a genuine belief among vets and producers that it was within the law and an appropriate preventative measure to tail biting.

Tail biting is a common problem in pigs that don’t have loose enrichment materials – such as straw, which is considered the gold standard – to bite and nibble. Pigs are very curious animals that like to root around, so if they don’t have materials they can manipulate, they instead turn to other pigs’ tails.

However, a few years ago the EU announced that there had been a misinterpretation of legislation, and that tail docking should be a last resort.

Why is there a lack of enrichment materials for pigs on farms?

Most commercial pig farms in Ireland have fully slatted floors. These are easier to clean as muck falls through the gaps, but it also means loose enrichment material would fall through too, potentially clogging the drainage mechanisms underneath.

They often provide plastic in the form of hanging toys and chew bars attached to the pen, but these aren’t enough on their own.

What impact is tail biting having on farmers?

Our research has found that farms in which tail biting is more prominent are less profitable than those with fewer cases. This is because bitten pigs grow less efficiently – they take around seven days longer to get to slaughter weight, requiring more food and resources.

It’s a consequence that’s unseen almost, as it can be quite subtle. But cutting down tail biting will help profitability in the long run. 

What research have you been undertaking to help farmers improve pig welfare?

We’ve investigated enrichment for fully slatted floors, such as organic materials like wood. We found that soft wood attracts pigs’ attention more than hard wood as it’s easier to chomp into, but wood alone wasn’t effective enough for pigs that weren’t docked.

We then looked at attaching loose material racks to the side of the pen, and filling it with different materials. Interestingly, the pigs liked grass the best, and not straw like we presumed. It was still difficult to control tail biting, but providing racks and multiple chew toys gave farmers a better shot than just a single plank of wood or a single chew toy.

Our research indicated there was more at play than providing them with enrichment, so in 2019 we began focusing on risk assessment procedures to figure out what the other stressors could be.

A PhD student – Roberta D’Alessio – is carrying out a survey on stress factors with stakeholders, and the findings have been very farm specific. What’s considered a stress factor on one farm isn’t considered a stress factor on another.

We’ve also newly partnered with universities in Denmark and Belgium to create a tool that uses cameras to detect if pigs are biting tails. If it detects a change in behaviour, it will send an alert to the producer to try and stop an outbreak before it happens.

What benefits is your research having for producers?

Our enrichment research has shown what doesn’t work, which prevents farmers from wasting money on those materials. We’ve also confirmed pigs’ interest in racks, which is one way of getting pigs loose material they’ll use.

Through our risk assessment, we’re hoping to help farmers pinpoint the main stress-causing factors for pigs, as they could be easy fixes like ventilation or lighting.

What has the response from industry been?

As part of our risk assessment, I collaborated with the Department of Agriculture and Animal Health Ireland to train vets to use a basic protocol we established. Through Government funding, farmers were able to contact vets and have an assessment carried out for free. 

As of 2020, about 48% of farmers have had this assessment done at least once. Considering no assessments had been done a couple of years prior, that’s a big achievement. And anecdotally, I’ve heard lots of farmers have begun testing rearing one or two litters without docking tails.

What do you have planned in 2022?

We don’t produce enough straw in this country to offer all pig farms a sufficient amount, and it’s difficult to store fresh grass, so we’re going to investigate plant materials that could be good alternatives.

Once the survey results are in, Roberta can hopefully go onto commercial farms and apply our risk assessment protocol, which will be a big next step.

Tail biting acts as an iceberg indicator when it comes to pig welfare – it represents bigger stressors. If we can sort this one issue out, we can sort out most of pigs’ problems.

Up close and personal

What’s your favourite animal?

Cats. I love them! They’re incredibly misunderstood.

If you hadn’t ended up in agriculture, what other job would you have wanted to give a go?

I managed a bar in London before I started my Masters. I thought it was fabulous. It involved lots of the skills I use today, such as interacting with people, being organised and dealing with figures. 

What are you most proud of professionally?

In 2021 I chaired an international animal welfare conference – the first ever held in Ireland. It helped to raise awareness of animal welfare as a science in this country, and we had lots of Irish researchers get involved. 

This article featured in the TResearch Spring 2022 Magazine. TResearch is an official science publication of Teagasc. It aims to disseminate the results of the organisation’s research to a broad audience. 

If you liked this article, you might like others in this publication.  View TResearch Spring 2022 here (PDF)