The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare

By Gerry Weber

It is a well-known fact that production animals will produce better in a stress-free environment. In every production system, this is true for all living organisms. As soon as there are any signs of stress the production drops, or the animals or humans get diseased.

The question is “How can we produce animal protein that is crucial for the wellbeing of humans without increasing the stress levels of the animals?”

Animal welfare is a topic that is not often talked about at farmer level, and it is often ignored instead of being tackled proactively. The consumer is demanding that the food that he eats is produced by producers that have taken animal welfare and the environment seriously. The problem is that this issue is not addressed properly. Good nutrient dense food is the next step. It  has a positive effect on the human health, and in reality, consumers are already demanding certain Brix values of their fruit and vegetables.

Is it only a matter of time before we’ll have to change our farming practices in order to take the whole value chain into consideration – Farming practices that improve soil biology and the effects that it has on the environment as well as the quality of the feed and food that we produce. We should have an audited animal production system in place that specifically looks at animal welfare and the five freedom principles of animal welfare. We should monitor what effect produced food has on human health – whether it improves human health and resilience or whether humans are more disease prone because there are certain chemical residues in the food that contain known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

It is of crucial importance that we change proactively instead of being blinded and so entrenched in our ways that we cannot comprehend what effects we have on the environment, the health of our production animals and eventually the health of humans.

What are the five freedoms of animal production?

  1.  Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition

This is self-explanatory and it is unthinkable that farmers would not feed their animals or not give them water to drink.

It is however more than that. The feed we provide should always be free from toxins. Toxins are probably one of the main causes of disease and often go unnoticed. It starts with the purchase of the maize. If the maize is so much cheaper than commercial maize prices, don’t think you are buying a bargain. It will come back to haunt you, in either disease or production losses, lower conception rates, or reduced daily weight gains.

Antibiotic growth promoters (AGP) – for how long will we be able to feed AGP?  They have been banned in Europe and in some African countries already. Should we not breed animals that are robust enough to withstand the pathogenic challenge that they are exposed to on farms? Has COVID19 shown us how fickle our food production and food distribution processes really are? What will happen if one of the large chicken or  bacon suppliers close because of a virus? We have had our first scare last year already with Listeria.

The problem with any pandemic or disease outbreak is misinformation. Wrong information can so easily be distributed nowadays with social media. It is of importance what is not said rather than what is said.

The other side effect of AGP is the pathogen resistance to antibiotics. We must produce animals that can produce regardless of the pathogenic load on the farm, whether it is bacteria, internal or external parasites. Farmers should use management systems which limit exposure.

“Water is the fundamental nutrient without which animals soon die. It is taken for granted and, therefore, often neglected” in the words of Rick Kleyn in his book Chicken nutrition.

We must give our animals clean, fresh drinking water. There is so much at stake in any animal production system, that we cannot afford to mess it up with contaminated water that might cause diseases within the herd. Too often there is only one water source, and if this is contaminated, you risk infecting your whole herd.

2.  Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort

This once again is an obvious statement. Why would any producer want to cause his animals to be in a state of discomfort? It affects the farmer’s production and income. What is not obvious to the consumer is that the animals are not as sensitive to temperature as humans are. Free range or pasture raised animals are normally more robust, or it could be that the environment is just more animal friendly for the pasture raised animal than factory farmed animals. That would beg the question, why spend so much money in trying to control the environment?  Pasture raised animals don’t need to be pampered to such an extent as industrial farmed animals. Is the cost of industrialisation worth it?

Farm with Nature not against her.

It is important to retain trees and natural shade for your animals, for them to move out of direct sunlight. They must have access to direct sunlight too, if they choose to stand or forage in the sun.

3.  Freedom from pain, injury, and disease

It is very seldom that a producer deliberately causes pain or injury to his animals. What this refers to though is the handling facilities must be of such a nature that they don’t cause pain or injury. A mercy killing has to be performed when an animal is injured or has chronic pain and cannot be helped anymore . The welfare of the animal must be considered over the money that might be lost by the mercy killing.

Freedom from disease – this is where the veterinary consultant must be used on the farm. You cannot think of animal welfare without having a resident vet who inspects your animals at least twice a year.  The farmer and the vet should also have a discussion on disease prevention. Prevention is better than cure. This should be an all-encompassing discussion including quality feed, water, animal handling, breeding, disease tolerant animals for your specific area, vaccination programs, and what treatments should be followed if there is a disease outbreak. Antibiotic growth promotors should not be part of the disease preventative discussion. We are fooling ourselves if we believe it doesn’t cause pathogen resistance to various antibiotics.

Antibiotics are however part of every farmer’s tool box and must be used according to the vet’s prescription, to blanket treat a herd for a disease that might affect production, with antibiotics is not an option. Using vaccines or boosting the immune system of the animal is a more sustainable option.

4.  Freedom from fear and distress

This is easier said than done. Farming in Africa is not for sissies or the faint hearted – if we take all the predators in consideration. Controlling predators will always be a contentious issue between conservationists and farmers. Relocating programs for predators, from leopards, cheetah, to wild dogs and hyena should be more coordinated across Africa. Some countries would welcome the reintroduction of predators and others feel they have too many. Because of various restrictions, rules and lack of funding, these relocations aren’t happening. If the farmer then shoots a predator, he is made out to be the villain, but the problem is that he has no system to support him in predator control.

The Mamre Intensive Lambing system, where the ewes lamb in pens that are predator proof, was specifically developed to prevent lambs from being killed by predators. The expense farmers have incurred to protect their animals from various predators are astronomical.

As far as freedom form distress is concerned, I just want to highlight air quality.  This is often ignored, especially in baby animal enclosures, where the baby animals must be kept warm – usually at a temperature higher than ambient temperature. The air circulation is critical in these rooms or facilities, in order to have enough oxygen in the room. This circulated air must be clean.

5.  Freedom to express normal patterns of behavior

This is an interesting principle as most of our production animals have been domesticated. Their genetic selection is such that they can produce or grow in a certain time frame in order to be harvested for meat under various conditions. In the chicken industry for example, the chickens have been genetically selected to grow at a certain rate, but they must be kept in a specific environment to maintain that growth. Take them out of that environment and the chicken would not produce and probably die. With all genetic selection, if you only select for growth and production, the immune system will be negatively impacted.

Pasture raised production animals must clearly have a different behavior pattern than factory farmed animals, be that poultry or pigs. Dairy is the same. You cannot expect an animal that is bred for a TMR system to have the same behavior pattern as a pasture raised dairy cow.

The interesting questions about the five freedoms are:

  • Who is the judge and the jury?
  • Who is the accused and the accuser?
  • Who determines how these principles should be monitored?
  • Who determines whether an animal is in discomfort?

Joe Salatin, in his book “Folks this ain’t normal” describes how he was reported to the animal welfare office because his ducks were swimming in a pond during winter. The charge was that his animals were cold. The ducks went into the pond on their own, wild ducks were also swimming in the same pond.

We must be very careful not to judge wrongly and in ignorance.

Animal production has advanced scientifically over time. It is fascinating what the genetic achievements have been in all the various animal production systems.

The farmers must also take into consideration that they can push their animals over the limit. Take any intensive reproduction system where the success rate is measured in number of pigs weaned, per sow per year. Having ewes lamb three times over a period of 24 months and the yield that has to be achieved in a dairy cow. In a TMR system, to produce a calve yearly and average over a certain yield of liters per day to cover costs. We are still working with living systems and they are wicked. Life happens and things do go wrong, be it with feed, water or other environmental factors such as heat. We must not run our herds on a knife edge. The production cost is just not worth it. We have to build more resilient management systems where we have better control of our input costs.

The broiler industry must be nearly sterile to produce their results.  This is not for the biosecurity of the humans, but rather for the broilers. If there is a disease outbreak, the fatalities are high. There is no more robustness in our animal production systems. Take cryptosporidium for example and how devastating it has been for both beef and sheep farmers.

Animal welfare: Farmers versus Vegans versus Animal Rights Activists

Talking about animal welfare from a farmer’s perspective is something totally different than talking about animal welfare from a vegan’s or an animal rights activist’s perspective. These are two totally different conversations.

Animal rights activists and vegans only take the animal into account, everything must revolve around the animal. The financial aspect of the farmer does not feature in the argument. Some controversial animal rights activists vandalised farms and cut electricity cables. This resulted in a malfunction of the ventilation and 700 pigs died. This is not fighting for animal rights – these are criminal acts that should be dealt with as such.

The farmer however cannot ignore animal welfare and think he will achieve optimal production. Think of how strict the various industrial farming setups are and take animal welfare into consideration like group housing in the pig industry.

The farmer must make money, but he cannot do it at the cost of animal welfare, and he must be made aware of any short coming with his management practices.

Consumer pressure is mounting to produce animal protein ethically. More and more farmers are starting to tell their stories on how their animals are treated ethically. They use no antibiotics or harmful chemicals to control internal and external parasites.

We must start looking at our animal production systems where biology plays a major role in all aspects. We cannot reduce our farming systems just to mechanical and chemical processes. This is just too simplistic and the production costs will escalate. Management systems where the biological services are enhanced will result in more control of our input costs. The undefined advantages, like animal health, soil health will reduce the production costs even further.


Animal protein is essential to the human wellbeing. We are omnivores and we as consumers have a choice in our buying power and choose how the animals that we eat, are raised. This is applicable in all aspects of animal protein from dairy, poultry and the various meat products.

Photography: Gerry Weber