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On-farm animal welfare self-assessment

Nigel Brown, District Veterinarian, Glen Innes

Posted Flock & Herd December 2019


Animal welfare can be considered the general well-being and quality of life of an individual or group of animals.

In this presentation, the basic practical premise is offered that good animal welfare is the result of good animal husbandry. As such, it means looking after the well-being and health of animals as well as possible - in the best interests of the animal at the current level of human knowledge.

Around the world different societies have established various rules and codes. For instance, Middle Eastern countries obtain their guidance from Qur'an with not a single Islamic country in the region having any Animal Welfare legislation (Aidaros, 2014). Australia possesses a far-reaching Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as well as The Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle plus numerous other guidelines and recommendations to guide producers.

Across Australian society there are diverse attitude to mans' relationship with animals ranging from 'absolute dominion by man' through 'a duty to give a good life and humane death' and on to 'an animal's total right to be left alone', a position frequently adopted by animal rights activists.


As District Veterinarians (DVs) within LLS, our role has a critical influence on animal welfare through the supply-chain from birth to death, on-farm, during transport, in saleyards and up to the moment of death. Our perspective should reflect not only legislative requirements and our moral imperatives as veterinarians for 'the best interests of animals under our care' but also reflect existing social mores and our duty towards our clients within the livestock industry.

As with other aspects of the DV role, an important part of our duty is to provide our clients (the livestock owners) with a practical understanding of the current level of knowledge of animal welfare - an advisory role. Critically this is translating myriad documents into everyday language and providing a sense of reality. There are evidently many reasons for a DV to discuss animal welfare with individual producers. These fall into three main categories:—

In general, a DV will act on all three but individuals may vary in their reaction depending on individuals involved, prevailing season and / or other factors.

Within NSW, responsibility for legal action under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (POCTA) rests with RSPCA NSW, Animal Welfare League NSW or the Police. However, the Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) program is the Australian livestock industry's on-farm assurance program covering food safety, animal welfare and biosecurity and should have a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the animal welfare status of the national herd. In my opinion, LPA remains in its infancy and has yet to develop the necessary musculature on its juvenile frame for enforcement and the intellectual maturity to reflect social justice.


By its very nature, animal welfare is difficult to quantify since many of its measures are currently more subjective than objective, unlike temperature or heart rate.

From a field perspective, animal husbandry practices may fall inside or outside the guidelines of the Australian Standards. However, as advisors to our clients, we should advise them when standards are deteriorating and approaching a point where they will fail to meet minimal requirements and we as veterinarians will be required to advise (probably) RSPCA of infringements and the need for action.

Figure 1 illustrates a scale of welfare standards with acceptable levels above the line and unsatisfactory below but a grey area just above the line which can be considered an "Area for Advice". In this, welfare is far from ideal but does not contravene Australian Standards. The area below the line represents welfare which does not meet these standards and where action is legally required. A DV may be considered to be failing in his duty if he did not take action in such cases.

Figure 1. Animal Welfare Scale
Chart showing conditions for animal welfare action

Depending on the relationship with local Inspectors this may mean immediate action such as a Welfare Panel, or a combined effort to seek welfare improvement. Self-evidently some cases will be first seen by a DV at a point where immediate notification of RSPCA is required.

From my perspective, there are three critical aspects of animal welfare - Abuse, Neglect and Deprivation.

Figure 2. Ill-treatment of Animals
Type Cause Sign Effect on production
Abuse • deliberate suffering, pain, injury, distress • poor individual performance
• financial loss
Neglect • idleness
• ignorance
• overwork
malnutrition, disease, distress, injury • poor performance
• biological inefficiency by groups
• financial loss
Deprivation • features of the husbandry system behaviour changes, malnutrition, disease, distress • various - often reproductive and immune weaknesses

• Abuse

In my interpretation, this is deliberate and brooks no excuse. Unfortunately, in my career, I have seen many cases of abuse in countries where there are no legal instruments covering animal welfare. Worse, I have cases at home which were illegal but not deemed prosecutable in a court of law. Perpetrators were allowed to continue their unacceptable behaviours with no constraints nor any industry-backed monitoring.

• Neglect

This broad grouping probably encompasses the vast bulk of animal welfare problems seen by DVs. Exacerbated by the current drought, relevant issues include:—

Together these make this a complex issue to resolve.

• Deprivation

Generally this is associated with specific husbandry systems,e.g. poultry and pig industries or zoos where animals are 'housed' in areas that fail to provide a suitable environment in every respect. Unfortunately, some production systems which apparently deprive animals of certain aspects of 'a natural life' also protect them from some adverse effects, such as predation, thermal extremes and wildlife disease,etc.

Assessing Animal Welfare

Animal welfare can be assessed by physical, physiological, behavioural or production criteria. However, more subjective, often anthropomorphic, parameters are widely used in less scientific assessments. Some significant problems for livestock industries can arise because of differing perspectives between assessors. Given the highly-charged emotional attitudes towards some aspects of animal welfare and animal rights, this frequently lends itself to welfare analysis being based more on emotion than on measurable scientific parameters.

In a similar vein, it is very difficult to change some people's views on welfare issues by providing 'hard data' that may have strong scientific validity yet disagrees with their emotional interpretation of the welfare status of a particular situation.

In 2016, only 228,372 people were directly employed in the agriculture industry, representing 2.2 per cent of all employed people in Australia. (ABARES, 2018). This increased to 466,625 when employment along the supply chain was considered - still less than 5% of the nation's workforce. The majority of agriculture industry employees lived in rural and regional areas of eastern Australia with 82 per cent of agriculture industry employees living outside a capital city.

The vast majority of the population is therefore significantly removed from close appreciation of practical welfare issues.

In Australia today, attitudes to animal welfare are a significant area of concern to livestock industries while at the same time being complicated by attitudes to animal rights.

Good animal welfare for farm livestock should be achieved by a combination of different activities:—

However, the current drought is creating serious stresses in this intricate network of activities for several reasons. These include the increased cost of feedstuffs, reduced availability of familiar feeds, prolonged feeding workloads, ageing and reduced workforce for many livestock enterprises, uncertainty about the future and many others.

Most livestock producers acknowledge that the productivity of their animals relies on good animal welfare and work long hours. Regretfully, some producers still do not maintain adequate welfare.


There would appear to be two ways to assess the welfare status of animals on a property:—

The LPA Accreditation Welfare component seems ineffective as a mechanism to ensure adequate standards are met on all properties. As yet it has not developed a protocol to identify PICs (Property Identification Codes) with weak animal welfare nor the ability to impose any meaningful trade restrictions on those failing to meet national standards.

LLS veterinarians are authorised to inspect stock and advise their clients or to refer cases they deem unacceptable to a prosecuting agency. However, in my experience, while a one-on-one discussion with a producer about animal welfare may be effective, a significant number of producers consider 'Animal Welfare' to rank alongside 'Biosecurity' as 'pointless' when it comes to organising workshops or other sessions.

To try to highlight some of the animal welfare issues of relevance to cattle graziers, a self-assessment questionnaire was developed to allow producers to identify their own practices. This multiple-choice questionnaire uses a points system where a zero indicates non-compliance with standards and guidelines and an indicator of a weakness that could be improved.

This questionnaire (Appendix 1) has 30 questions with a score range between 4 (excellent) and 0 (unacceptable). Nine questions have Yes / No answers; six have Yes / No / Maybe; 16 offered between 3-5 options and one question gives a point for each correct answer from a list of five. The maximum Score is 121 but the main objective is to make livestock owners think about the underlying reasons for any score less than perfect.

A small trial on the Northern Tablelands among fifteen ratepayers and agents identified reasonable acceptance as a mechanism with 12 responding - eight positively and admitting that they had achieved at least one 0, three suggesting improvements and one saying it was a waste of time.


  1. ABARES, 2018. ABARES Insights, Issue 3 Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Government of Australia
  2. Aidaros, H. 2014. Middle East Regional Animal Welfare Strategy (2014-2019), OIE Regional Commission for the Middle East

APPENDIX 1: Self-assessment chart

This chart is also available in printable pdf format.

On-Farm Self-Assessment Chart for Cattle Graziers

On-farm Animal Welfare is the focus of increasing interest to a significant proportion of Australians. By its very nature, welfare status is hard to quantify but most producers take their responsibilities very seriously. There are written Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for cattle, sheep, goats, land transport and saleyards.

The object of this Self-Assessment Chart is to allow owners / managers of grazing cattle to assess their own animal welfare status at any time, including difficult times such as the current drought. It tries to highlight areas of strength and weakness by giving a Score (Excellent = 4, decreasing to 0).

Although seasonal variation in body score is acceptable and occasional injury or death are, sadly, inevitable, any significant losses or disease outbreaks should be investigated and explained. By seeking relevant veterinary and nutritional advice, it shows that you are a diligent producer who is showing 'due diligence'. Self-assessment and upgrading of any weaknesses identified is the best method of proving positive intent and preventing compulsory certification by outside inspectors.

A score 0 indicates that you are not meeting required standards. Some of these are easily corrected but others may indicate a basic management weakness.

While it is based on national standards, this is an informal document to make producers aware of aspects of animal welfare they may not know. Any owner / manager who identifies a weakness is advised to contact NTLLS for a confidential discussion with a District Vet or Livestock Officer to identify the best way to bring about improvements.

Measure Descriptor Score
1 Do you have a copy of "Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle"? Yes 4
No 0
2 In what condition are your adult cattle? All healthy and with body score 3 or above 4
More than 10% are body score 2 3
More than 5% animals are very thin - body score 1 or less 2
More than 2 animals in High Risk category 1
More than 1 animal at BCS High Risk 2 or collapsed 0
More than 2% animals have died in the last year
3 What condition are your calves/weaners? All healthy and with body score 3 or above 4
More than 10% are body score 2 3
More than 5% animals are very thin - body score 1 or less 2
More than 2 animals in High Risk category 1
More than 1 animal at BCS High Risk 2 or collapsed 0
More than 2% animals have died in the last year
4 Do you routinely call a vet to look at sick or dying animals and follow the advice? Yes 4
Sometimes 2
No 0
Freedom from Thirst
5 Animals have access to water (except for prescribed 'time-off-water') Full-time with stream, dam or reticulated water checked frequently 4
Muddy dams nearly empty 2
Only get access to water once a day 1
Sometimes they go without water for a day or so 0
6 Number of animals dying in dams in last year None 4
1 3
More than 1 0
Freedom from Hunger
7 Do you think your animals are getting enough food? Yes 4
No 0
8 Is supplementary feeding being given to animals? None needed - or adequate if being given 4
Yes and animals maintaining above fat score 2.5 4
It is - but they are still losing weight 0
9 Is there adequate feeding space for all animals to access supplementary feed at the same time? Yes 4
No 0
10 Total ration Feed analyses carried out + ration balanced using an advisor 4
Effective balanced ration based on experience 3
Ration is estimated on what is available 2
Ration nutritionally inadequate and stock losing condition 1
Ration inadequate and causing disease 0
Freedom from Discomfort
11 Can your cattle get protection from wind, sun, rain, inclement weather? Yes 4
Yes but probably not enough 2
No 0
Freedom from Pain
12 Do you use anaesthetics for castrations? Always on animals over 6 months old 4
Sometimes on animals over 6 months old 0
Never in animals under 6 months of age 0
Never 0
13 Do you use anaesthetics for dehorning? Always on animals over 6 months old 4
Sometimes 0
Never 0
Freedom from Injury
14 Do you get cattle injured? No more than 1% a year 4
From time to time 2
In certain parts of the property 0
Frequently 0
15 Farm cleanliness Tidiness is important to me - all rubbish, wire, metaletc. is collected and stored/disposed of safely 4
Some debris lying around is normal 3
Trying to improve this area of the property 2
Too much other more important stuff to do 0
16 Do you have control programs for feral animals? Yes - including coordinating with neighbours 4
Sometimes I do baiting 2
No 0
Freedom from Disease
17 Do you have written Farm Biosecurity Plan? Yes 4
No 0
18 Do you get veterinary advice for unexplained deaths? Always 4
Usually 3
Sometimes 1
Never 0
19 Do you get veterinary advice for unexplained disease? Always 4
Usually 3
Sometimes 2
Never 0
20 Do you have a written health program developed with veterinary advice? Yes 4
No 0
21 Do you have a program for assessment and treatment of downer cows? Yes 4
No 0
22 Do and your staff attend workshops and / or training on livestock management and disease? As often as possible 4
Sometimes 2
Staff rarely do 1
No 0
Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour
23 Are all cattle able to behave normally with other cattle or are they limited Kept in a mob with adequate feed and water and protection from the elements 4
Always kept with at least one other animal 4
Kept in limited space but with adequate feed, water and shelter 3
Kept in limited space but shelter is not big enough for all animals 1
Freedom from Fear and Distress
24 Are the cattle handling facilities safe for all animals? As good as they get 4
Pretty good - but could be improved 3
About time they were replaced 2
Really a bit of an embarrassment but... 1
25 What is the level of cattle handling skills of all the staff on the property? Everyone is highly trained, uses minimal goading and has been through a stock handling training course 4
Most people are well-skilled 3
Some staff need more training 2
Animals don't move easily through some parts of our system 1
Natural Disasters and Extreme Weather
26 Do you have written plans to minimise cattle welfare in the event of emergency Yes 4
No 0
27 Do you have a drought strategy with specific trigger points for decision-making? Yes 4
No 0
Destruction of Livestock
28 Are you skilled in shooting cattle? Yes - only need one shot 4
Reasonable 2
No - I really should get a bit of training 0
29 Which of these signs of death should be seen when cattle are shot? (ONE POINT FOR EACH) Absence of eye movement and a corneal 'blink' reflex when the eyeball is touched, 1
Dilated pupils that are unresponsive to light 1
Absence of rhythmic respiratory movements for at least 5 minutes 1
Flaccid jaw 1
Flaccid tongue 1
30 Which method of carcass disposal do you use? Burial 4
Allow to decompose on a heap 0
Knackery 4
Composting 4
Burning 4
Maximum Score 121 Number of Score 0 My Score


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