Taking on a Leadership Role
Purdue Ag scientists work for the
good of people - and animals
The public’s increasing desire to know where their food comes from, how it is produced and whether it is safe certainly has grabbed Purdue Agriculture’s attention.
Faculty are involved in a variety of research and other work to help society improve the human diet, balancing efficient and sustainable production of high-quality animal products with proper treatment of animals.
Candace Croney heads an initiative to establish Purdue as the national leader in animal behavior and welfare science. Croney and other recently hired researchers add to the university’s growing expertise in this area.
It is an effort engaged in on several fronts on behalf of consumers, producers and the animals themselves.
Candace Croney, an associate professor of animal behavior and well-being, has expertise in applied animal behavior, with emphasis on animal learning and welfare. As part of her work, she serves on a panel of animal well-being specialists, organized by the not-for-profit Center for Food Integrity, who analyze undercover video investigations at livestock farms by animal-advocacy groups. Her role is not necessarily to defend practices shown in the videos but to provide expert opinion on whether they indicate inhumane treatment of animals.
Croney at times has come down hard on producers for the actions of their employees. She criticized the kicking and throwing of piglets at a Wyoming hog farm as “scientifically and morally indefensible” and suggested, if the actions were depicted accurately in the video, that there was “a culture in this particular facility of absolute indifference to the animals.”
But Croney says what might appear to the general public as mistreatment of animals in some cases actually could be scientifically proven as humane. She says the animal agriculture industry should not bow to public pressure to do only what is “esthetically pleasing” but should examine itself to ensure that it is treating animals humanely.
“I think it is important for us to look at all of the science, not just the science that is convenient for us,” she says. “I reject the notion that we can’t do right by both animals and people.”
Maja Makagon uses infrared images, such as this one of a duck, when researching animal behavior and welfare. She studies bones and muscles to help determine the causes of lameness in ducks.
Expanding Expertise in Animal Welfare Science
Croney helped to write a proposal, approved by the university provost, for an initiative to establish Purdue as the national leader in the study of animal behavior and welfare, and how society is affected by the interactions between people and animals. The idea is to create an on-campus resource, tentatively called the Center for Animal Welfare Science, that will build cross-disciplinary and cross-college research, teaching and outreach teams to:
- address contentious social issues in animal behavior and welfare,
- promote and explore the broad effects of the human-animal bond, and
- bridge the rural-urban divide on understanding animals and their evolving roles in society.
The plan includes hiring four additional faculty members in the colleges of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. This will help meet growing need for sufficient faculty with expertise in animal behavior and welfare who can teach and conduct outreach activities and research involving agricultural and companion animals.
Purdue Agriculture contributed to the faculty hires for the center with the hiring of Maja Makagon in the Department of Animal Sciences. She began at Purdue in August.
“There is a big misunderstanding among the public about how their food is produced,” Makagon says. “And on the industry side, there needs to be more transparency and communication.”
Makagon, a poultry specialist with a Ph.D. in animal behavior, is specifically interested in how animals perceive and interact with their environment and the implications those interactions have on the management, well-being and productivity of the animals. Her research focuses on both applied animal behavior and welfare.
As an example, Makagon, in collaboration with Woodland Farms, conducted research to determine how breeder ducks selected where to lay their eggs. Some chose to lay their eggs on the floors of barns where they were housed instead of in nest boxes provided for them.
“That could be an indication they were not provided the right type of nest boxes, which may or may not be a welfare issue,” Makagon says. Her research found that ducks laid significantly more eggs in nest boxes that were enclosed.
“We did not necessarily address a welfare issue,” she says, “but we did address a management issue, which has real economic implications for the producer.”
Makagon is now researching the gait of Pekin ducks with Indiana-based Maple Leaf Farms. She's studying why some walk the way they do—just as with people, not all animals within a species walk the same way. Producers could use information from such research, which involves studying the bones and muscles of the animals, to determine whether lameness is an issue in their flock. The objective is to assess whether perception of “poor gait” is related to an animal’s well-being or if it is simply human bias in interpreting how we think a duck should walk. Although gait could be perceived as an animal welfare matter, the problem could lie elsewhere; it could be hereditary, for instance.
“We need to be able to assess lameness. Then the next step is trying to determine what causes it and how to prevent it,” Makagon says.
Other Purdue scientists also are working to improve animal well-being and food safety.
- Molecular microbiologist Paul Ebner is working with the Livestock Behavior Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, located at Purdue, to develop technology that could be used to limit transmission of foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella, in livestock and, ultimately, in people.
- Animal science adipose biologist Kola Ajuwon uses unique pig models to study the development of obesity. His main focus is to understand what regulates development of fat tissue during the prenatal and postnatal periods. His ultimate goal is to identify strategies to prevent obesity and associated diseases in humans.
- Poultry physiologist Patricia (Scotti) Hester is trying to reduce osteoporosis in egg-laying hens, a condition that can cause broken bones during egg production.
The Economics of Animal Sciences
Purdue’s research extends into other areas of study as well, such as economics— for both producers and consumers.
Nicole Olynk Widmar, an assistant professor of agricultural economics, conducted research with Glynn Tonsor at Kansas State University showing that news coverage of animal welfare issues reduces the public’s buying of pork and poultry. Consumer demand for beef doesn’t decline, but it doesn’t increase, either. That is because consumers who otherwise would have spent money on pork and poultry tend to put it toward nonmeat products.
Photo courtesy of Maple Leaf Farms
Poultry research can determine whether a problem is a welfare issue or a management issue. Researchers can then determine how to best solve the problem.
Widmar also has studied how much consumers are willing to pay for meat and dairy products based not only on how livestock are reared, handled and housed but also on who verifies that information, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumer groups or private entities. In a study involving pork chops and milk, Widmar and fellow researchers from Kansas State and Michigan State University found that consumers were most willing to pay for those two products if the livestock had access to pasture and verification of that came from the USDA rather than from other entities. They also found that some consumers were willing to pay a higher price for those products, depending on the production practices and their verification.
Still, price remains a very important element in choice of livestock products. “As there is an increase in meat prices, consumers’ willingness to pay for specific attributes may change,” Widmar says.
And change is precisely what Purdue Agriculture is helping the industry
to prepare for.