The focus of my research is how today's knowledge and technology can contribute to animal welfare. And how that can lead to win-win situations within animal systems. I concentrate on pigs but my research can be applied to all kinds of animals.
Before working at APS I studied animal management, worked with laboratory animals, and thereafter studied animal science. In my Master's I mainly focused on behaviour of large animals. Working at APS appeals to me because we research how animal welfare can fit in the bigger picture. How can we ensure that animal welfare becomes part of sustainable livestock systems? This is essential because people will use knowledge about behaviour and welfare only if it is also economically beneficial. Seeing it as part of the production system is a way of showing its meaning.
During my PhD I came to the conclusion that we do not make optimal use of the feeding behaviour of pigs. Just like humans, pigs have a circadian feeding pattern, with regular feeding times. This is intrinsically controlled by the biological clock and affected by external cues, such as light, feed availability and accessibility. We know this feeding pattern gets disrupted when a pig is sick or stressed, but major differences between and within pigs still hampers detection of these patterns.
With sensor technology we are able to closely measure and monitor feeding behaviour, and thus health and welfare of pigs. But since this technology is relatively expensive it doesn’t pay off for growing (fattening) pigs yet. In breeding, for gestating sows, however, this technology is already more common, but mainly used for management and not for animal welfare. The problem is that we lack the right indicators for that. So at APS I would like to develop better indicators, for animal welfare, but also for optimal production results. That brings in some dilemma’s since sensor technology is also associated with animal welfare threats. It might for instance stimulate industrialized pig farming, which is associated with animal instrumentalization and various welfare issues. Is there interest to invest in a technology that may threat animal welfare? It could be interesting though to use sensor technology to distinguish certain types of pigs that are less sensitive to stress, so that they experience less problems in pig farming. But both threats and opportunities of technology need to be taken into account.
At the same time, technology probably won’t be enough to improve animal welfare. Pigs have strong innate behaviours that are not satisfactory possible in current intensive housing systems. Pigs are curious animals that do like to explore their environments and as soon as domestic pigs get the opportunity for this, they do so. Animals can’t stand up for themselves but I believe they have a right to a good life. I also see promoting animal welfare as a mission in my work.
I also supervise PhD students and I am involved in education, such as the courses Sensor data in Animal Science (SenDAS), Systems Approach in Animal Science (SAAS) and Future Livestock Systems (FLS) and supervising BSc/MSc thesis students.