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Raising healthy, happy animals

Posted by stephanie rogers on March 24, 2020 in News, Research
Rebecca Meagher
Rebecca Meagher

By Niecole Killawee

Rebecca Meagher may have grown up in the suburbs, but she found her calling when she transformed her love of animals into a career dedicated to agricultural sciences. After finishing an undergraduate degree in zoology, she discovered a field of research dedicated to the science of animal welfare. That inspired her to a pursue a doctorate degree in the area, which eventually led to professorship here at the Faculty of Agriculture.

 “Once I started working with farm animals, I really liked that atmosphere,” says Meagher, an assistant professor in the Faculty’s Department of Animal Science and Aquaculture. “I thought it was fascinating that you could use science to improve animals’ lives… there’s lot of opportunity to do some good in this area of research.”

 Meagher’s research — which sits at the nexus of biology, psychology, and agricultural management — aims to uncover new ways of assessing and improving animal welfare on farms. This includes exploring how to assess an animal’s emotional state, determining the influence that an animal’s early life experiences and environment can have on its long-term health and well-being, and using those findings to help improve animal welfare on farms.

 Fear is an emotional state that “seems to be very relevant to farm animals,” says Meagher. She knew that dogs and cats are better equipped to deal with unfamiliar situations and stimuli if they experience socialization early in life, which significantly decreases fearfulness and stress later in life.

 “We looked at whether there are similar effects in dairy calves; if they need similar social contact in those first few weeks of life,” she says, adding that cows are social creatures, too.

 Meagher observed marked differences between 5-6 week-old calves that were raised in isolation compared to those raised in shared pens with their mothers or another calf. Calves raised by themselves had increased levels of fear, were slower to start eating solid food, and had impairment in certain types of cognition. Those effects could have an influence on the animal’s milk production abilities later in life, too.

 In another research project, this one a review of existing scientific literature, Meagher found that the common practice of separating calves from mothers shortly after birth in an effort to protect the calves’ health is not founded on solid evidence. Developing new farming systems and practices that could keep a calf with its mother longer may be slow or challenging to implement, especially on large-scale dairy farms, says Meagher, but efforts to improve welfare come with many benefits.

“I think research like mine is important because we have a responsibility to manage animals in the best way that we can when they’re under our care,” says Meagher. “This is about making farms more efficient by getting rid of some of the welfare problems that can inhibit production, but it's also about the social sustainability of the industry, and developing farming systems that everyone in society is more comfortable with.”

 Meagher is now working to design and establish studies on farmed mink welfare, an area she says is relatively lacking in research so far.

 “I think a lot of us who are interested in animal welfare really care about how the animals feel,” says Meagher. “Farmers care about their animals, too, and they want to do better for [their animals] if they can.”