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Early environment effects on animal welfare, health and productivity - AW0509

Experimental studies in farm animals have clearly shown that stress experienced by pregnant females can affect how well their offspring cope with challenges they face later in life. Such early life (prenatal) experiences can therefore have a substantial impact on farm animal health, welfare and also on productivity. For example, a previously Defra funded project (AW0125: Early life programming of stress responses in the farrowing sow) at SAC showed that the social stress of mixing pigs during pregnancy had clear negative effects on the growth, stress reactivity and behaviour of their offspring. Similar studies have also been undertaken in sheep, cattle, poultry and fish and have shown that significant differences in health and welfare outcomes may occur due to conditions as early as conception. Variation in the conditions for development provided by the uterus or egg may therefore explain a large degree of variation in many welfare and productivity relevant traits. On-farm surveys of animal welfare often find substantial variation within particular farm production systems. Whilst epidemiological analyses of such data often allow many causal explanatory factors to be uncovered, these studies rarely investigate the role of the prenatal environment (as assessed by the housing and husbandry standards that apply to the dam) in determining welfare outcomes.

The possible importance of welfare standards for gestating animals, not merely for their own welfare, but for the welfare of the next generation they ‘house’ is widely unappreciated within most farming systems and indeed the extent to which these effects may explain variation in outcomes in industry situations remains unknown.

This is largely because, to date, most considerations of the effects of prenatal stress or undernutrition have been carried out in controlled settings very often with experimental challenges that may not relate to actual commercial practices. Such studies are extremely valuable in highlighting the possible range of effects and elucidating mechanisms but they do not aid recognition of their effects on-farm or allow evidence-based recommendations on how animals should be treated during gestation for the benefit of their offspring. Whilst some studies do address realistic commercial practices, such as mixing, information is lacking on the extent to which such practices occur in most commercial systems.

The project would provide information on which of the conditions/events experienced by pregnant farm animals (pigs, sheep, cattle, poultry and farmed fish) might have a negative effect on their developing offspring and importantly how often these conditions/events occur under normal commercial conditions. The first part of this would involve collating and review the research literature in this area. The second part would involve gathering data from UK farms on the frequency with which the relevant practices and events occur. The combination of these two pieces of information will allow an assessment to be made of the relative risk posed to health and welfare by different early life factors in practice. The factors that matter may not necessarily be the individually worst or the most common but the ones where the combination of severity and prevalence is maximum.

Such information would allow recommendations to be made as to the best methods of managing pregnant animals for the sake of their own welfare, and also for the sake of their developing offspring’s welfare.


Review literature on early life effects in the target species to identify treatments/situations/events already established as hazards.

Review literature on studies that have assessed general stress/welfare hazards for gestating animals in their own right – but without looking at ‘downstream’ effects on their offspring.

Canvass expert opinion to ensure all possible potential hazards (in a UK commercial context) have been identified.

Compile full list of potential hazards for each species and identify possible commercially relevant sources of variation in early life management.


From literature and biological first principles identify likelihood, type and severity of offspring outcomes.

Identify factors influencing susceptibility or resistance to early life hazards (basic biology, sex, social status, breed, age/parity etc).

Identify knowledge gaps.

Compile list of severity estimates for previously identified hazards.

Gather information from farms (breeding units, hatcheries etc) to assess real life variation in management practices.

Estimate national prevalence of exposure to individual early life hazards.

For each species combine information from HI, HC and EA (Objectives 1-3) to rank likely welfare risk of early life hazards.

Identifying relative risk ranking across species.

Define best-practice management for animals during early development.

Implement KT activities based on prioritisation of risk.

Project Documents
• EVID4 - Final project report : AW0509 final report   (1064k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2009

To: 2013

Cost: £456,005
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - Stirling, SAC Commercial Ltd
Animal Welfare              
Plants and Animals              
Fields of Study
Animal Welfare