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Can heart rate variability distinguish between the welfare qualities of different beef cattle housing?

Lookup NU author(s): Jim Clapp


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The impact of environmental conditions on farm animal welfare has been assessed using a number of measurements, including the animal’s behaviour, metabolism, stress reactivity, endocrinology and pathology. Although to date no single technique has fully quantified the welfare status of farm animals, new developments in the field of heart rate variability (HRV) shows promise. The technique allows the non-invasive objective measurement of chronic stress in free ranging cattle. This poster reports on a pilot study to use the Polar® heart rate monitor to compare chronic stress levels in two groups of fattening beef cattle (comprising 4 heifers and 4 bulls respectively from each pen of 15 cattle) before and 1 month after pens swapped between conventional beef fattening housing and a new purportedly welfare friendly building called the Roundhouse®. Using a cross over experimental design, to remove individual biological variation, individual HRV was compared with stress reactivity, shown by initial heart rate (HRi) on entering the crush and a water splash (WS) test under resting heart rate (HRr) conditions. The HRr in both groups was significantly reduced 1 month after moving, suggesting cattle were becoming accustomed to the handling. All bulls showed significantly lower chronic stress levels, from increased HRV and reduced HRi, after 1 month in the Roundhouse. The heifers’ response to changing housing was ambiguous with two showing increased and two decreased chronic stress levels from HRV and HRi. It is proposed that the heifers may have been protected from the more stressful conventional housing by positive preconditioning in the Roundhouse. All cattle had elevated heart rates in response to WS but due to an incomplete dataset no comparison could be made between groups. Although the Roundhouse appeared to be less stressful for beef cattle than conventional housing, these results may have been influenced by order error.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Clapp J

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Unknown

Conference Name: Recent advances in animal welfare science III UFAW Animal Welfare Conference, York, UK

Year of Conference: 2012